When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
If I’ve come up with a grand thesis over the past four years of writing about romantic comedies for this column, it’s that I genuinely think people watch rom-coms differently than they watch other movies. They either go in with their hackles raised, ready to mock the plot swerves that exist outside of the realm of realism, or they watch them passively, automatically assuming there’s little meat on their bones. And while experiencing a romantic comedy in either of these ways can be perfectly enjoyable, doing so often means missing out on the details and intentions that fuel the genre at its best. I should know, because I’m guilty of doing just that to The Family Stone.
The second most divisive Christmas romance after Love Actually, The Family Stone earned mixed reviews on its release but enjoyed a solid box office showing and has only grown in esteem over the past 16 years. Many now consider it part of the contemporary Christmas canon. And while past viewings of The Family Stone never really did it for me, the film sprang to life when I rewatched it more closely for this column. This time around, I came to appreciate the intentionally thorny things it’s attempting to explore, as well as the Christmas magic it purposefully (if only semi-successfully) deploys with its sister-swapping love stories. I get why The Family Stone is something of an acquired taste, but I also think it’s one worth acquiring.
At its heart, The Family Stone is a movie about how horrible it is to be judged and how fun it can be to do the judging. Uptight Manhattan careerist Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) really does try her best to make nice with the family of her boyfriend, Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney). But she’s reserved, meticulous, and socially awkward in a way that’s naturally off-putting. The Family Stone can be uncomfortable viewing because big chunks of it just ask you to watch Meredith be very, very bad at things: small talk, charades, backing down from an argument when she’s clearly in the wrong. For all her outward elegance, Meredith is completely lacking in social grace. And if there’s one thing the loosely bohemian, casually intellectual Stone family hates, it’s stuffy formality.
The Stones, meanwhile, are the sort of cliquey clan that’s terrifying from the outside but wonderful to be a part of. What immediately jumps out is how physically affectionate they are with one another. There’s this moment where they’re catching up around the kitchen table and laid-back older brother Ben (Luke Wilson) casually pulls his younger brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) onto his lap. It’s a pitch-perfect depiction of loving adult siblinghood, and the sort of little touch you rarely see in big studio rom-coms of the 2000s, which often have a clinical quality to their staging. The best thing writer/director Thomas Bezucha brings to The Family Stone is a casual, lived-in quality that carries over from the cozy costuming to the chummy physical blocking to the fantastic production design of the Stone family home.
Chief in both disheveled chic and Stone family judgment is Rachel McAdams as younger sister Amy. It’s the performance that even those who dislike The Family Stone tend to agree is the best thing about the movie. She’s based on Bezucha’s sister, whose own experience bringing home a dud of a boyfriend is what inspired the movie in the first place. Just as Ben has inherited his wonderful sense of warmth from Stone family patriarch Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), Amy has clearly inherited her passive aggressive sense of humor from matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton). A big part of what makes The Family Stone special is that Bezucha seems to have an understanding of the family’s dynamics that stretch far beyond what’s explicitly laid out on the page.
There’s almost a sleight of hand to the way Bezucha is able to give each member of his massive ensemble their only meaningful place in the puzzle. Though it doesn’t serve any narrative purpose, Bezucha takes time for a sweetly melancholy late-night scene where Kelly checks in on his pregnant, peacemaker oldest daughter, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), who seems to be juggling more than anyone but him notices. Elsewhere, Ben and his niece (Savannah Stehlin) share a charmingly playful dynamic that mostly just unfolds in the background of big group scenes. Thad’s partner, Patrick (Brian J. White), meanwhile, has the ease of someone fully enmeshed in the Stone clan, but also the empathy of someone who had to go through his own trial-by-fire to get there. Because Thad is deaf and the Stones regularly sign, entering their home is like stepping into a new world where you literally don’t always speak the language.
All that attention to detail pays off in the second act reveal that Sybil’s breast cancer has returned and this will likely be her last Christmas with the family. It’s a swerve towards heavier material that throws a lot of viewers off, particularly since the film was marketed as more of an out-and-out comedy. But there’s something appreciably bold about Bezucha’s attempt to pioneer the “tragicomic Christmas screwball romance” genre. For all the film’s broader physical comedy, Bezucha ensures that each of the five Stone siblings get a meaningful moment with their mom, too, including Sybil’s showier speeches to Everett and Thad, and the small moment when Susannah quietly cuddles up to her mom while she’s napping. Maybe most moving of all is the scene where Meredith gifts the family with an old photo of a pregnant Sybil, who looks up at Amy to say, simply, “That’s you and me, kid. You and me.”
Sybil’s illness also helps explain why the Stone family are desperate for someone to aim all their pent-up frustration and anger at, too. There’s a through line of trauma and grief here that becomes clearer with rewatches. Where the movie stumbles a bit, however, is in trying to balance that heavier core with its lighter rom-com moments. The thing that always trips me up is the addition of Meredith’s little sister, Julie (Claire Danes), who gets called in as emotional support during Meredith’s moment of crisis. Though you’d think the film would use Julie to humanize Meredith and offer a different family dynamic for comparison, the Morton sister relationship actually winds up feeling almost incidental. Instead, Julie’s arrival is Bezucha’s convoluted way of giving Everett a new love interest as Meredith starts falling for Ben.
The trouble is, the Everett/Julie romance hinges on the sort of magic, love-at-first sight connection that would be a tricky sell for any romantic comedy, let alone one that’s also kind of trying to be a grounded ensemble drama and occasional cringe-comedy. Whatever “opposites attract” thing Bezucha is going for doesn’t work with Julie and Everett, mostly because they both seem too flighty and noncommittal to be a functioning couple. And getting the audience to root for their romance is a big ask considering he starts the movie ready to get engaged to her sister and she doesn’t even enter the story until over a third of the way through.
The Meredith/Ben stuff is better, if only because Wilson is doing some of his best work in the rom-com genre. Again, there’s a big buy-in to believe a lackadaisical Berkeley-based documentary film editor would immediately fall for the uptight New York City businesswoman who’s dating his brother. But Wilson sells it through the adoring way Ben gazes at Meredith no matter how socially awkward her antics become. Whatever magical-realist quality Bezucha is aiming for with the Julie/Everett storyline works far better when Ben softly tells Meredith about the dream he had about her: “You were just a little girl in a flannel nightgown, and you were shoveling snow from the walk in front of our house. And I was the snow. I was the snow, and everywhere it landed and everything it covered. And you scooped me up with a big red shovel. You scooped me up.”
The details are so strange and so unlike traditional rom-com banter that you kind of buy that Ben and Meredith have found themselves in some stupor of Midsummer Night’s Dream proportions. And in its best moments, that’s the same spell that The Family Stone casts, too. If Meredith is her worst self because she’s nervous, the Stones are their worst selves because they’re comfortable. And when it comes to the holiday season, most people can probably relate to one of those two experiences. (Critic Anne Cohen has even dubbed The Family Stone “the most Jewish Christmas movie.”) In the end, The Family Stone is as much a familial love story as a traditional romance, which is why its biggest moment of catharsis involves Parker, McAdams, and Keaton sitting on the kitchen floor, covered in raw egg strata, and laughing hysterically at the surreal weekend they’ve had together.
As The Family Stone sees it, the key to making it through the holidays is to try to be our best-worst selves together—to embrace who we are rather than who we think we should be. And there’s a lesson in there about rom-coms too. If we set out looking for the worst in the romantic comedy genre, we can often miss the intentionality that fuels its artistic choices, even when they don’t entirely work. The best moments in The Family Stone are the ones you might not catch if you’re watching while folding laundry or just looking to laugh at its weirdest plot points. It’s a movie that relies on a glance here and a gesture there to convey its true sense of heart. And it was a nice Christmas treat to revisit it with fresh eyes and find so much I’d previously overlooked.
Next time: After a brief holiday break, we return in 2022.