Dir: Thomas Bezucha. US. 2005. 104mins.

The Family Stoneis a serio-comic story about the holiday gathering ofa chatty, mildly bickering bohemian New England brood, and the straight-lacedgirlfriend that the eldest son brings home. A sort of mash-up of The Myth OfFingerprints and Home For TheHolidays, it's also a rich reminder of the old adage that all that isdifferent is not necessarily good.

Scripted bydirector Thomas Bezucha, The Family Stone is a movie of distinct personality and wild moodswings, which would be emblematic of the complications of real life - if only itscharacters' choices reflected some inner conflict rather than being dictated bythe melodramatic plot.

Facing stiff babyboomer competition at the box office (it opens in the US on Dec 16) from thelikes of Rumour Has It and The Producers, The FamilyStone would not seem to be particularly at an advantage. It suffers from a comparativelack of star power and brand name recognition, while its peculiar mix of stylesrenders it a tough opening-week sell, after which its quirks and pacingproblems will probably lose it any crucial word-of-mouth support. This is tosay nothing of the marketing materials, which fail to engage male demographics.Internationally, where it opens in the coming month, returns are likely to be similar.

The Family Stone centres nominally aroundprodigal son Everett (Mulroney), who for the Christmas holidays is bringinghome his new, well-to-do girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), tomeet most of his family for the first time.

Parents Sybil andKelly (Keaton and Nelson, respectively) preside overa household characterised by the absence oftraditional social boundaries: every topic is fair and open game, from thecaptured virginity of college-aged, youngest daughter Lisa (McAdams) to thestoner inclinations of affable screw-up Ben (Wilson).

Eldest sister Susannah(Reaser), married and with a daughter of her own, andgay, deaf son Thad (Giordano), alongside his African-American boyfriend Patrick(White), round out the Stone clan.

The culture clashbetween Meredith - a prim collection of talkativeness and nervous tics - andthe rest of the laidback Stones is as immediate as it is substantial. Not wantingto bunk with Everett under his parents' roof, an apologetic Meredith evictsLisa from her room and, after several more awkward incidents, summons hersister Julie (Danes) in a panic to join her as emotional ballast.

This is but thebeginning of the movie's lightly dramatic scab-picking, though, as otherrevelations of fading commitment, healthiness and secret crushes eventuallycome tumbling forward. Everett at first means to make Meredith his wife, buthis mother Sybil passive-aggressively demurs when asked for her mother'swedding ring, which she had promised to give to himprior to his engagement. Ever the good son, Everett has to then decide whetheror not to push the issue.

Bezucha (BigEden) does not reach for grand conclusions or startling revelations,and depending on your threshold for pat, choreographed endings, that's all partof the grand, quotidian illumination of the film or just another reason not tobother with it.

Despite itsoffbeat scene-to-scene rhythms and some pleasurably off-kilter dialogue, The Family Stone is essentially workingwithin the framework of a very familiar story, and so the trajectory of its characterarcs is never really in doubt. Bezucha certainlydoesn't help himself in this regard by planting so obviously the seeds of aBen/Meredith attraction, and laboring unduly to make it so.

There are somemoments of uncommon tenderness, self-protection and unfussy adult yearning -including a needy make-out session between Nelson and Keaton- but those are intercut equally with pat revelations,cheap manipulations and set-ups that ring inherently false within the contextof the narrative.

Why, forinstance, are Ben and Everett dispatched to pick up Meredith's sister at thebus stop' And why do Thad and his boyfriend Patrick - whose relationship isaccepted and celebrated by all - stay at the nearby hotel when everyone else isstaying at chez Stone'

The answer issimple, and easily recognisable: because it aids thescript in lazily introducing characters and - later, as conflagrations mount -giving them reasons to cross paths outside of the home. Beyond contrivances,though, these decisions simply don't make sense given what we know of thecharacters, and there are a half dozen other damning examples big and smallscattered throughout the movie.

As the huffish,guarded Lisa, McAdams shows a pleasant range that might not get a good workoutshould she become the next leading lady of young Hollywood.

Nelson and Keaton, too, have a few nice, non-showy moments as parentswho have surrendered any dictatorial claim on their children's lives. If onlythey were the parents of another movie.

Production company
Fox 2000 Pictures

US distribution
20th Century Fox

International distribution
20th Century Fox International

Jennifer Ogden

Michael London

Thomas Bezucha

Jonathan Brown

Production design
Jane Ann Stewart

Jeffrey Ford

Michael Giacchino

Main cast
Claire Danes
Diane Keaton
Rachel McAdams
Dermot Mulroney
Craig T Nelson
Sarah Jessica Parker
Luke Wilson
Ty Giordano
Brian White
Elizabeth Reaser
Paul Schneider