As the mid-00s arrived, and it became harder for Hollywood directors to tap into the feel-good spirit of the romcom 90s, a whole new second wave of films emerged – films that eulogised feel-good as a lost 90s affect. Few films do that as weirdly or as dissonantly as The Family Stone, partly because this most grating of holiday movies isn’t quite sure whether it wants to recreate feel-good, or eulogise it. At the same time, The Family Stone forms part of a parallel trajectory in the mid-00s – a more clinical continuation of the mix-and-match subgenre of 90s romcoms. Whereas films like While You Were Sleeping and My Best Friend’s Wedding worked at playfully displacing their central couples, a second generation of films, like The Holiday, focused on change-ups in more efficient and economical (and less plausible) ways. These films felt like precursors to the online dating market, since they more or less discarded meet-cutes for second options – a sobering reminder that the first wave of 90s romcoms was no longer able to sustain the 00s, even if no satisfying substitute had emerged.
Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, The Family Stone wraps all those tendencies into an even broader trajectory that underlay feel-good and romcom affects alike, and their genesis in classical screwball comedy – the fate of wacky Wasps, and New England family homes. For The Family Stone is at once a romcom, a feel-good failure, and a flashback to one of the most tried-and-tested tropes in 90s Hollywood – coming home for the holidays. In this case, Dermot Mulroney plays Everett Stone, a New York stockbroker, who is returning to his family town of Thayer, Connecticut, along with his fiancée, Meredith Morton, another stockbroker, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Awaiting him in Thayer is his mother Sybil (Diane Keaton), his father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), his siblings Ben (Luke Wilson), Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and Amy (Rachel McAdams), as well as Meredith’s sister Julie, played by Claire Danes, who shows up when the Stone family gets too overwhelming.
In the opening scenes, Bezucha makes an interesting inversion to the homecoming formula, spending most of his time introducing the Stones, rather than Everett and Meredith. That’s partly because there are so many Stones to get through, but it also indicates that we’re not only going to be seeing this Waspy family through Meredith’s eyes. In another inversion, this family seem both quainter and more liberal than Everett and Meredith, despite the fact that none of them have managed to follow Everett to Manhattan. That broad tolerance is encompassed in the character of Thad, who’s gay, deaf, and on the verge of adopting a child with his black boyfriend, Patrick Thomas, played by Brian J. White. From a contemporary perspective, including all the diversity in one character seems a bit on the nose, but for a film that was released in 2005, this was quite a bold move, especially in the opening scenes, which unfold with the Stones blithely accepting Thad and Patrick as equal members of their family.
By contrast, Everett and Meredith are uptight – they feel like a couple from an earlier generation. Beyond a certain point, Everett is absent, since Mulroney has to play the same kind of romantic non-lead he brought to the table in My Best Friend’s Wedding. By contrast, Meredith is very much present, embodying all the insularity and prejudice that you might expect from the country people in this kind of city-meets-country clash. Since she’s the only member of the household who doesn’t speak sign language, her body language is stilted and awkward from the get-go – it’s her, rather than Thad, who has communicative challenges. Similarly, she’s remarkably – almost implausibly – old-fashioned in her bearing and attitudes. At one point, she pauses for the family to leave a room before she makes a telephone call; at another, she stops at the head of the stairs to regally take command of the entire Stone clan.
That weirdness crystallises around the question of Meredith’s bedroom. While the Stones put her and Everett in the same bedroom as a matter of course, she objects to sharing a bed in his parents’ house. It’s hard to tell whether she believes it’s a breach of etiquette, or whether she feels it’s presumptuous for the Stones to assume that she and Everett can’t spend a holiday without sex. In any case, she’s fine booting Amy out of her bedroom so that she and Everett can do things the “right” way, even as she leaves Amy’s bedroom as soon as she parks her luggage, so that she can confer with Everett about why his family haven’t warmed to her – a mere ten minutes after meeting them. She then expects the family to leave the room so she can telephone her sister, but only so she can complain to her sister that the family doesn’t like her. These tortuous sequences drive the first act, and made me wonder whether the film was reflecting on the unlikeability of the Carrie Bradshaw persona outside Manhattan. From our brief introduction to Meredith – a languorous pan through Barney’s New York – to her anger when Susannah’s daughters damage her high heels, Carrie never seems very far away.
So far, so good – the film inverts the time-worn trope of the liberated Manhattanite clashing with the wacky New England family. Yet whereas that trope normally leads to a certain amount of concession from both parties, Bezucha accelerates and intensifies it, promptly following Meredith’s introduction by pulling back from his opening vision of the Stones to present them at their absolute worst. While Meredith is insufferable, the Stones aren’t much better in their distrust of her as a working woman – and neither is the film. For the first act, Meredith’s character is hard to read, and borderline incoherent – until she opens up about work, and we realise that we’re witnessing a particularly parodic professional femininity. All the Stones roll their eyes when she discusses working in financial markets, while Sybil, Keaton’s character, can barely restrain her rage when Meredith describes her first date with Everett as a business transaction: “I just showed him a few things that needed to be done.”
Yet this second act also feels like a spiritual sequel to Baby Boom, which followed Keaton as a stockbroker who learned to be a mother. While Meredith doesn’t become a mother here, she does endear Sybil, for the first time, by joining her in the kitchen and sharing the cooking. In a bizarre twist, then, the Stones go from being the most loveable people to toxic bullies, while their house shifts from a space of total inclusivity to a war zone of overt hostility. In the opening scenes, it’s lovely to see how proficient they all are in sign language, and there’s a real elegance in how casually they shift between spoken and sign language, much as Thad moves fluidly between signing and lip reading. But the sign language also means that they can talk behind Meredith’s back in plain sight – and, despite the sheer sweep of the cast, their conversations soon become pretty one-note; so many instructions to Everett to break it off.
Yet the curious fact about The Family Stone is that the Stones don’t make Meredith any more sympathetic by bullying her, just as she doesn’t make them any more sympathetic by disdaining them. While both parties are horrible, they don’t make you feel any sympathy for the other party, creating a crisis of sympathy that prevents the film finding any real refuge. The traditional family is toxic, but so is the professional world outside the family. While an earlier brand of romcom might have tacitly acknowledged this in the warring forces of attraction and repulsion between the two parties, The Family Stone is all repulsion, jettisoning us in an atonal and dispersed space in which feel-good cues betray an underlying anhedonia.
To some extent, this was the broader ideological bind of the mid-00s – a time when both heterosexual coupledom, and the nuclear family, were starting to lose some of their staying-power, precisely due to the visible diversity that we see in the opening scenes of this film. It feels like Bezucha is trying to capture the couple and the family, at this moment of precarity, in a new embrace, but the film ends up going in the opposite direction, thanks to a repulsive central scene that brokers a bad-faith reconciliation between couple and family at the expense of the diversity that Bezucha initially seemed to foster. Since the couple and family in question are mutually repelled by each other, but can’t quite discount each other ideologically, they have to exclude something else – find somewhere else to put the unlikeability quota that, in the opening scenes, no longer seems to be a necessary point of definition for married life or family life. Watching this process unfold, by way of a tortuous dinner conversation, is like seeing the mid-00s discover a new kind of prejudice as a bulwark against the dispersal of the marital and familial structures that the classic romcom validated.
This dinner conversation involves two discrete stages, both of which are aimed at Thad and Patrick. The prelude involves Meredith “apologising” for not being able to speak sign language. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but Meredith’s apology isn’t really about making a connection – it’s about getting the gay couple, and the family as a whole, to affirm and reassure her. From there, Julie, Meredith’s sister, asks the gay couple whether they’re planning to adopt a white or black baby. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad question, but the way Claire asks it – and the way Bezucha frames it – draws attention to Patrick’s race in a new way for the film. It’s as if everybody just takes his blackness for granted, neither ignoring nor foregrounding it, until Claire makes it a thing. In these two moments, disability and race are tacitly reothered, as if the film is backtracking and apologising for its relaxed opening scenes. Whereas the Stones spoke to and with Thad and Patrick, Meredith and Claire speak about them, reducing them to so many objects of debate, and platforms for their own narcissisms.
This leads to the central moment in the film. Having reothered disability and race, Meredith reothers homosexuality, with a scene that could only have come at this precise moment in time. When Sybil makes a joke about wishing all her sons were homosexual, Meredith retorts, astonished – surely she couldn’t really hope for abnormal children? That would be an astonishing enough response in itself, especially given that Meredith has only known the family for 24 hours, but she takes it further, digging her heels in, and asserting herself for the first time in the film, to insist that it’s just not reasonable for a family to celebrate their gay children. This scene instantly took me back to the way people talked about homosexuality in the mid-00s, when homophobic discourse shifted from demonising to “debating” the lives of gay folk, culminating with the marriage equality movements of the late 00s and 10s. I felt like I’d lived this conversation so many times – people talking about me as if I wasn’t there while also insisting I “join in” the debate, as if to remain silent would be a failure of critical thinking.
The Family Stone is also clearly traumatised by this moment, especially because, from the vantage point of the mid-00s, and in the midst of Hollywood sentiment, it can’t envisage a way out of it. In the one magnificent moment of the film, Sybil and Kelly both slam their fists on the table, at either end of the table, and yell at Meredith to be quiet. It’s precisely the cathartic gesture so many of us wanted and needed at that time – a blunt refusal to debate queer lives. It’s also eminently reasonable within the context of the film, or at least seems so from a contemporary perspective. After all, Meredith is a guest in the Stones’ house, and a very recent guest at that – who is she to tell them that they shouldn’t value one of their children as much as the rest? Add to that her dogged determination to debate Thad’s “normality,” and she seems to get off pretty lightly from the vantage point of the present day.
Yet the mid-00s weren’t the early 20s, so what seems self-evident now (and, to many of us, seemed self-evident then) can’t be processed by the film as such. As cathartic as Sybil and Kelly’s outbursts are, they quickly service a different kind of catharsis, since sticking up for their gay son is apparently the point at which the Stones go “too far” – the point where they reach peak antisociality, meaning this is also the point at which our sympathy is supposed to shift back to Meredith. Everyone has to apologise, ceremonially, in one way or another, for sticking up for the gay couple, which means, of course, that the gay couple cannot speak for the rest of the film – and they don’t. Speaking about people in their presence literally becomes a form of silencing here, much as Meredith never even considers apologising to the two gay men, let alone acknowledging that her outburst broke some pretty basic rules of etiquette.
Instead, extraordinarily, this homophobic debate generates the main romance of the film, reducing gay men to so much collateral damage. This was also the case in many 90s romcoms, but there was a more generous and playful possibility there, encapsulated by films like My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Object of My Affection that saw queer life as a line of flight from the traditions of family and coupledom. So it is with The Family Stone – when we next see Thad and Patrick, they’re walking together in the snow, planning their adoption, more compelling in their love than any other relationship in the film. Yet whereas the 90s romcom could afford to process this possibility, the mid-00s romcom was faced with a world where the status symbols of family and coupledom were far more precarious, forcing them to use these gay male tropes (like so many other tropes) in a far more clinical and economic fashion.
No surprise that this doesn’t make for an especially convincing romcom. Rather than sticking around to see if his brother and boyfriend are OK after Meredith’s outburst, Ben actually follows Meredith when she storms out of the house, and encourages her to embrace her “inner freak,” which apparently means her tendency to debate queer lives at family dinner parties. Even more grating, when she tells him “I love the gays,” he reassures her that “they know that,” even as the two gay characters in the film are never permitted to speak again in any meaningful way after this point. In effect, Ben encourages Meredith to become Carrie Bradshaw – to double down on Carrie, after Carrie proved to be so unlikeable when displaced from Manhattan in the opening act. No surprise, too, that the Stones pull back from sign language at this point, reducing the gay men to a pair of mute witnesses to pivotal plot points.
From here, the film feels like pure ideology, a rote exercise in restoring normality. It never feels plausible that Meredith goes for Ben, or that her sister ends up with Everett, but nor does it aim for plausibility – this is just damage control, putting all the pieces in place, making sure the people who need to be othered remain othered. To some extent, Bezucha tries to offset this with a raucous “rumpus” ending, replete with quotes from Where the Wild Things Are, but that just makes it all seem even more mechanical. The only genuine emotion comes when Susannah tears up watching Judy Garland in Meet Me In St. Louis, shifting the film into a more resonant minor key as Bezucha rotates through the family as they all fail to live up to the fantasy of Vincente Minnelli’s film. All, that is, except Thad and Patrick, who spend their part of the montage wandering, idyllically, through a snowy landscape, arm in arm, as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” reaches its apex. This is the only space and scene in the film that feels commensurate with Minnelli, and with the feel-good 90s – a fleeting moment that, treated right, might lead the rest of the film in its wake, towards a new kind of family drama.
Yet the film can never embrace the gay characters in this way, preferring to exclude them from the family rather than revere them as harbingers of a new kind of family – as occurs, for example, in Schitt’s Creek, a perfect example of all that this film is not. Sure, Thad and Patrick turn up, in the epilogue, with their child in tow, but by this stage, Sybil, their strongest advocate, has passed away from breast cancer in the interim year. Of course, Sybil’s death is more than a litmus test for the fate of the gay couple, but as their most vocal defender, she also enjoys a symbiotic connection with them. To make way for gay parents, the film suggests, something else had to be lost from the family, since it’s too much to compute that gay parents might both exist and be free from “debates” about their normality within their own home. Worse, Meredith now takes control of Sybil’s image, adopting her position in the middle of the frame, just as she distributed photographs of Sybil as a Christmas present the year before.
For all its sentimentality, then, The Family Stone is a profoundly cynical and self-hating film. I’m not sure why, but from the outset I felt it was written and directed by a gay man, since I recognised this inchoate impulse in myself at the time – the yearning to imagine a space free of debate-centred homophobia, coupled with an inability to quite envisage (or at least inhabit) that space given the conditions of possibility at the time. When even the most “human” characters in a film are prepared to debate your own humanity, or at least sanction that debate, you start to doubt it yourself, and The Family Stone is suffused with that doubt – it is a dramatization of that doubt. Feel-good, by the mid-00s, became a more clinical exercise in making others feel bad, and that bad affect, that bad-faith affect, is peculiarly pregnant in Bezucha’s film, which took me back to the feeling of that period like few others.