The Many Sins of Casting the First 'Stone'

"The Family Stone" with Craig T. Nelson, left, as the father and Sarah Jessica Parker, center, as the son's new fiancee, is a festival of bad casting decisions. (By Zade Rosenthal -- Twentieth Century Fox Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

On the subject of families, Tolstoy famously said, essentially, that all happy families are the same but all unhappy families are different. Now, take the Stones -- please take the Stones!

Braying, self-righteous, predictable, morally superior and, worst of all, loud, they are the subject of a film called "The Family Stone" that means to celebrate them but only denigrates. You wouldn't wish them on your worst enemy, though of course, heh heh, I would. Mysteriously prosperous (no reason given), they live the good life in a generic Northeastern suburb where their seeming preoccupation is to notify strangers of their own superiority and the strangers' inferiority. What they have done to earn this exalted status is never quite specified, but it must have been pretty great. You'd think they cured cancer from the way they carry on, though as the movie progresses, it proves -- inevitably -- that there isn't yet a cure for cancer, only a temporary accommodation.

In any event, the ordeal that unites them in scorn and smugness this Christmas season is the arrival of favorite and most successful son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) with his soon-to-be fiancee Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), and poor Meredith just isn't up to Stone snuff, as everybody knows. One look at her tight, constricted hair-in-a-bun, her perfect girl makeup, her prim, twitchy body language, her need to succeed and her willingness to be the bad guy in a workplace situation and we know: She's an emissary from the empire of repression.

That makes her a mortal enemy of the wonderful Stones, who stand for freedom, tolerance, nurture, humanity, compassion and, of course, hate the guts of anybody who dares disagree with them. Poor Meredith: It's sure as rain and taxes she's gonna get a Christmas turkey in the lap at the dinner table, but the movie has a big surprise for her and us -- it isn't a turkey that writer-director Thomas Bezucha's script contrives to dump on her, oh no. It's an egg casserole.

Well, there are many ways to define the shrieking awfulness of "The Family Stone," from the general lack of wit to the cheap exploitation of cancer to the casual cruelty that Bezucha thinks is humanity that undergirds it, but let's find another approach: the casting.

Casting -- the art of finding the right person to play the right part -- is one of the secret skills of the old movies. The studios knew this, had specialists, and that's why so many old films have a magic the newer ones lack. It really goes awry here: This film is a festival of bad casting decisions.

As mre and pre of the Stone clan, Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson are completely wrong. This is nothing against either performer or, really, against either performance, though they do seem to be in different movies, Keaton possibly a biopic on the late Susan Sontag, for she's suddenly acquired that white flare in the crest of her hair. No, it's a question of the secret principles of showbiz appropriateness: Keaton is a true movie star with a pedigree that goes back, of course, to "Reds," "Annie Hall" and "The Godfather." She is royalty, and protocol demands that any movie she's in -- her last one found her opposite Jack Nicholson! -- acknowledge such or it feels wrong. Nelson is a TV guy. You cannot marry a movie queen to a TV guy. You cannot marry Charlize Theron and Kiefer Sutherland. When Sutherland was making movies you could; now you simply cannot! Again, this is nothing against Nelson, but he's just so far out of his weight class, so overmatched, the miscalculation throws the on-screen chemistry off. You just sit there thinking, Hmmm, what is wrong with this picture?

Then there's Mulroney as Everett. He's 42 in real life, and way too old for this role. He's so far beyond juvenile it's almost embarrassing to see him in the role of a fellow who brings a gal home for his family's approval. You think: Grow up, tool. You don't need anybody's permission to marry the person you love. He's also got the wrong kind of face for the sensitive, expressive Stone clan, the compleat, perfect liberal family: He has harsh, tough, street-boy features, a kind of pugnacity to him. As he's aged and picked up character lines, he could play a cop, a crook, a cowboy, even a lawyer. But not a Stone. Maybe a Rolling Stone but not one of these Stones.

Then, in the movie's switcheroo, he ends up with an even younger person, an actress (I labor to preserve the twist ending) whose ultimate union with him seems perverse, like Woody Allen ending up with a teenager or Jerry Lee Lewis with his 14-year-old cousin.

Then there's Tyrone Giordano as brother Thad, who happens to be not merely gay but also deaf, so that the family in toto has mastered sign language as a token of their fabulous compassion; Thad's black lover is a constant presence. Excuse me, but the movie, which gives itself a great deal of credit for its political correctness on this issue and considers itself a document of tolerance, is quite the opposite: It trivializes Thad by dumping so many issues on him, so that there's no room whatsoever for a character. He's the least well realized of the three boys, and Giordano is fey and unprepossessing, a straight cliche of gayness that even the movie's admirers will find difficult to stomach.

Rachel McAdams is Amy, the angry daughter who is particularly snarky to the unfortunate Meredith. She's so impossibly pretty that you're disconcerted by her bitchiness and wonder what the point is. Well, there is no point. Finally, Luke Wilson is the laid-back third brother, who looked like trouble to me from the get-go. He's a "documentary filmmaker" in California, which generally means "unemployed layabout," and I kept awaiting the arrival of the FBI to haul him off, but of course the Stones are too perfect for all that.

As for poor, beloved Sarah Jessica, she's again wrong for the part, adorable as she is. She's too adorable. You cringe at her humiliation. An actress with an edge of ego and intractability would have worked much better. Agh, the whole thing gave me the willies.

Other than its smugness, its pomposity and its shallowness, I liked "The Family Stone" a lot. Except, of course, for the cast, the script and the fact that everybody drove a Volvo.

The Family Stone (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for drug references and sexual content.

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