A friend and I made plans to go to the movies Friday night, and he more or less handed me the reins when it came to picking the movie. Ah, carte blanche. No wrangling, wheeling, dealing, or tradeoffs of the sort that, in ensuring neither party is bitterly opposed to the chosen fare, ensure as well that neither party is delighted with it. Christmas had come early.
On the strength of this review, I chose The Family Stone, a decision in which I was only galvanized by a different critic’s snide, pun-infested look far down upon it from up high. When a critic spends a paragraph dictating what “a better movie”–i.e., a different movie–would have done, rather than reviewing the movie at hand, you know it must have confounded her. And any movie that confounded Manohla Dargis is a movie I’m game for. (Another strange reaction came from David Edelstein: he likes the movie but thinks the insular, judgmental Stones are the ideal family. They’re not even the protagonists. What a less interesting movie he saw than the one I did.)
Good thing, too. My friend and I both were taken with The Family Stone, for many of the reasons that Armond White’s typically provocative review corrals. The other possibility had been Pride and Prejudice, which I think would have been his own choice. So as the movie began I was a little nervous about having steered us in this other direction, not knowing whether it would pan out. But as the early plot–a comedy of manners that cuts far closer to the bone than many of its kind–played out, I thought that the spirit of Jane Austen was within shouting distance even here. Not the Austen of Pride and Prejudice, but the author of Northanger Abbey, a novel in which the gothic terror feared and dreaded by the heroine is all in her head, but the social terror attending her scrutiny by the family she wishes to marry into is very real.
Although it begins as a straightforward, funny-unsettling examination of such terror, the movie broadens its focus to the search for love and acceptance more generally, and gets much more complicated. It tries to do a lot, and for the most part succeeds even as it veers from the cool, surgical dissection of social mores–with a central scene in this vein that forgoes the anesthesia but is as electrifying to watch as it is painful–to slapstick physical comedy to romantic farce to frank sentiment (I’m trying to steer away from naming it sentimentality, but White calls the movie “intelligently sentimental,” which is another viable solution). There are a lot of balls in the air by the end. Everything is under the control of the director, but just. I watched the whole thing with my heart in my throat.
Diane Keaton, whom I was laughing at just last week while rewatching The Godfather, Part II on DVD, is very subtle here, and Sarah Jessica Parker is like some whole new actress you’ve never seen before. As White points out, there are superficial similarities between this character and Carrie Bradshaw, but by Parker’s second scene any fugitive thoughts of Sex and the City are left in the dust. Her vulnerability here has nothing to do with the faux vulnerability–curable by the right shoes–of her television role. She’s fantastic.
Here’s a little bit of the White review that proved so decisive for me:
Despite awkward shifts of tone in Bezucha’s emotional balancing act, he makes up for his flaws whenever he looks into Meredith’s and the Stones’ crooked hearts. In one such sequence Susannah, the film’s quietest character, sits alone at night to watch Meet Me in St. Louis on TV. (“This is my favorite part.”) Images of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are juxtaposed with a montage of each character isolated with their dashed or unexpected hopes. Garland’s plaintive, beseeching voice underscores Bezucha’s vision.
Understand: This is a great moment because it’s not ironic. It’s felt. The same way Vincente Minnelli felt it and meant it 61 years ago only, now, in modern terms–challenging the antipathy and unease that fills the Stone household. The pixilated TV distortion of Garland’s cartoon-vivid face looms ghost-like, an unreachable idealization of what family life should be, poignantly played against Stone hard reality.
Oh, and it’s a laugh riot, too. Go go go.