Every drama needs conflict, and sometimes that conflict comes from fundamentally good people making poor decisions or behaving in ways that don't speak to their essential decency. Surely, writer-director Thomas Bezucha intended the key characters in The Family Stone to be flawed, irreverent, and maybe a little off-putting at first blush, at least until viewers get to know them. On this front, he's severely miscalculated: These people are awful, and it's hard not to want bad things to happen to them. Some of the problem can be blamed on the holidays and the irritating conventions of holiday movies, which are all about jamming a two-story suburban home full of bickering family members who can't get through a meal without a meltdown. But most of it falls on Bezucha, not just for devising these monstrously cruel characters, but for putting them in situations that are far too serious to be resolved by Christmas morning. When the melodrama gets too intense, the film collapses in slapstick.
Whether by design or miscasting, Sarah Jessica Parker shoulders most of the ill will as an uptight urban businesswoman whose posture suggests a body temperature cold enough to crack a thermometer. First seen barking into a cell phone—which has replaced mustache-twirling as the cinematic shorthand for evil—Parker gets thrown to the wolves when her boyfriend Dermot Mulroney brings her home for Christmas. Mulroney's spiteful sister Rachel McAdams has already had a chance to damn Parker on first impression, but much of the family follows in line, especially mother Diane Keaton, who wants the best for her golden boy. Others, such as father Craig T. Nelson and brother Luke Wilson, are a little more tolerant of Parker's abrasive qualities, but Keaton possesses the family diamond, and she refuses to give it to Mulroney when he asks for it as an engagement ring. After a particularly horrific dinner, Parker calls on her own sibling Claire Danes for emergency reinforcement, but Danes' appealing presence introduces another set of problems.
Because holiday movies apparently need to be bristling with activity, Bezucha clogs up the screen with more characters than he can manage, including a gay relationship so discreet that it makes In & Out look like hardcore pornography. Paul Schneider turns up as an ambulance driver with an old crush on McAdams, and a pregnant sibling (Elizabeth Reaser) mostly lurks in the back corner of every scene, worrying about whether her husband will show. At the core of The Family Stone are heartbreaks and betrayals of almost Bergman-esque magnitude—Keaton's obstinacy over the ring isn't even the half of it—but Bezucha needs the holiday spirit to prevail, no matter the tonal consequences. It's a Christmas miracle that this family even stays together, though the movie hardly feels like one.