Family Stone
Credit: Zade Rosenthal

The Family Stone is one of those Christmas movies viewers either love or hate, mostly because it’s just about impossible to sort of like Diane Keaton or sort of dislike Sarah Jessica Parker.Stone is also known for forcing audiences to confront difficult questions, including “Which Wilson brother do I prefer?” and “How do I feel about Dermot Mulroney’s cry face?”

Correspondent Samantha Highfill and senior writer Darren Franich decided to talk out their feelings about the controversial (in our office, anyway) 2005 film. Sam’s in the film’s pro corner; Darren’s bringing all the cons.

Happy holidays!

SAM: Where does one begin when talking about The Family Stone? Let’s start with the fact that it’s about a beautifully dysfunctional family led by the brilliant duo of Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson. Has their ever been a better parental pairing in a Christmas movie? No, there has not. Add in Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, and Tyrone Giordano as their grown children, and I’ve never wanted to hang out with a family more. Seriously, you saw them play Charades. They’re FUN. Plus, they all know sign language—because brother Thad is deaf—which just makes them cooler.

DARREN: On paper, it’s the perfect family, and the perfect set-up for a great Christmas movie. Unfortunately, The Family Stone is not a Christmas movie. It’s a horror movie in which the perfect family’s perfect Christmas gets invaded by Sarah Jessica Parker, portraying the worst character in movie history. SJP plays Meredith Morton, who’s nominally some kind of executive from Manhattan. But actually, she’s a social terrorist from space who has the emotional intelligence of a five-year-old raised in a bomb shelter. My problems with the movie start with her character: Parker played the definition of a hip New Yorker in Sex and the City, so it’s a tonal nightmare to see her playing a big-city executive who appears to have never heard of gay people, or deaf people, or to have learned really any basic level of human interaction.

But more to the point: Can we talk about the fact that this is a movie where Dermot Mulroney takes his girlfriend home for Christmas…and then meets his girlfriend’s sister…and then immediately falls in love with the sister…and then asks the sister to try on his grandmother’s wedding ring? And it’s totally okay, because the girlfriend wants to date Dermot Mulroney’s brother? Sam, I ask you: Doesn’t The Family Stone only make sense if we pretend everyone onscreen is completely insane?

SAM: You know what is insane, Darren? Love. Love makes us do crazy things, like fall for our terrible girlfriend’s sister or our hot boyfriend’s brother. But here’s the thing: We’re over-thinking this. The Family Stone isn’t Interstellar; it doesn’t need to be analyzed. This is a quirky, incredibly chaotic family that sometimes swaps love interests. So what? It’s a Christmas movie. Anything is possible! And I won’t complain about it, because Luke Wilson is the one thing that makes Sarah Jessica Parker tolerable.

What I will say about SJP’s portrayal is that this film takes the idea that Sarah Jessica Parker is annoying, then plays it up to the umpteenth degree—even making sure her ponytail is so tight that it hurts to look at her. I have to appreciate a film that takes Carrie Bradshaw, distorts her, and doesn’t stop until she’s completely unlikable. Yet she doesn’t ruin the film. Her whole purpose is to serve as the counterpoint to this messy, liberal family.

Is Meredith the worst? Yes. Does her awfulness bring about some great moments for the “perfect” family? Yes. And for me, that’s her entire purpose. (Well, that and her dance.) But to go back to your question of sanity: I think these people are “insane” in a way. They know that they’re losing their mother, and they’re grieving. If grief doesn’t make people do “insane” things, I don’t know what does.

DARREN: Booo, I say. Booo! I know that my visceral reaction to the movie is rooted in how and when I saw it: With my mom, when I was home for Christmas from college. We went in expecting a funny/heartwarming family comedy: We got a movie where talented actresses pratfall over spilled food, and then suddenly every things shifts on a dime because CANCER. You’re so busy forgetting to laugh that you barely have time to not cry.

Now, cancer plotlines in movies can be incredibly moving. But here, it just feels like a massive bummer airdropped in from out of nowhere. I’m intrigued by your argument that everyone in this movie is acting like a crazy person because they’re repressing their grief. But I don’t think that really explains the last act of the movie, when everyone becomes a cartoon character. And it also doesn’t explain Rachel McAdams, playing the world’s least convincing hipster (whoa, sweatpants!). But I don’t want to hate on McAdams too much, because she’s the most fascinating character in the movie. She hates Sarah Jessica Parker, and she has a weird non-sibling chemistry with Dermot Mulroney: This all feels very grown-up Flowers in the Attic to me.

Am I overanalyzing? I can’t help it! You’re so right about the cast being great, but The Family Stone itself is such a weird combination of wacky and perfect that they wind up feeling more like a family from a Christmas advertisement. Like, isn’t it weird that the family is supposed to be this beacon of liberal tolerance—gay deaf son! Rachel McAdams playing Winona Ryder! Luke Wilson playing Owen Wilson!—but then the end of the movie is the picture of mid-century Americana, everyone happily married and pregnant? The Family Stone tries to have its cake, eat it, smear the cake all over the actors’ faces and declare itself a triumph of the human spirit.

SAM: I actually don’t think this film is trying to declare itself as anything! I get that it walks this weird line of “is this supposed to be funny or is this supposed to be sad?”—but I think that’s what makes it both. The Family Stone is—love squares aside—a very realistic look at a family dynamic in times of coping. Yes, Diane Keaton has cancer, but it never feels schmaltzy. I don’t think you’re necessarily supposed to cry when you watch it—though if you didn’t, I question the existence of your soul, Franich.

I had a similar first experience with the film: Went to see it with the family; was not expecting all the cancer. I didn’t love it for that very reason. But upon re-watching, I realized The Family Stone is about funny moments in times of sadness. Honestly? I feel stupid talking so seriously about a movie that I don’t feel takes itself too seriously. It’s not preaching about the loss of a family member; if anything, it teaches us how not to deal with loss.

And I have to say, I don’t think they turn into a Christmas advertisement. Sure, everyone’s hair looks great in that final scene—but I think it’s also the movie’s most depressing moment. It’s the picture of a hurting, messed up family. They’re not punching each other or laughing or throwing things, but not because they’ve evolved into the perfect family. It’s because the Stones are no longer themselves. Who’s to say that Rachel McAdams’ character stays with the EMT, or that SJP will even be a member of the family next year? Nobody. In that moment, they’re trying to have a good holiday without their matriarch, and they’re lost. They’ll go back to screaming at each other as soon as possible.

More importantly, how have we not talked about Brian White’s chunky sweaters yet? Because: AMAZING.

DARREN: I feel the need to declare that I am not the Grinchiest Grinch on Earth. Last year, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, and was a blubbery mess for the last twenty minutes. Like, Sam, literally, I was crying for twenty minutes. That hasn’t happened since the last time I injured myself playing a sport my parents forced me to play!

So I like what you’re saying about the messed-up quality of the Stones. To be honest, I think I’d like the movie more if it doubled down on the grief thing—if you could really feel how Diane Keaton’s condition was driving all the members of the family to pretend to be their best selves, until they become their worst selves.

The Family Stone might not be my cup (glass) of tea (eggnog), but I can’t get too mad about a movie becoming a new go-to yuletide entertainment. The Franiches were always a Christmas Story family, although at some point my brother and I started watching Scrooged—both of which hail from the ’80s. Love, Actually came out more recently, but it’s as British as British can be. So even though I don’t necessarily approve of vaguely-incestuous sister-swapping, I can support the notion of The Family Stone taking a place in the canon of American Christmas films.

SAM: I would like the record to reflect that one mention of Brian White’s sweaters was all it took to open Darren’s heart. Because they’re that great.

The only other thing I’ll say is that I don’t disagree with the notion that doubling down on the grief thing would help—yet I’d also hate if the movie did that. Because oddly enough, I find this to be a very fun holiday film. Yes, there’s all the grief—but that’s just one part of this family’s holiday. And while another part involves sister-swapping, so long as it gets me a slap fight between Luke Wilson and Dermot Mulroney, I’m happy.