THE FAMILY STONE
starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams
written and directed by Thomas Bezucha
starring Tess Harper, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Kelly, Michael Learned
written and directed by Tim Kirkman
THE DYING GAUL
starring Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, Ryan Miller
written and directed by Craig Lucas
by Walter Chaw An absolute freakin' nightmare: Imagine spending the holidays with Diane Keaton in full-smirk, full-chuffing, shit-eating laughter mode, then magnify that with a screenplay by hyphenate and former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha that never misses an opportunity to excrete a little dollop of quirk where silence would have spoken volumes. The Family Stone is an intensely middlebrow bath, dipped in warm sentiments and institutionalized ugliness--one half slapstick fish-out-of-water, one half chestnut-lit holiday perennial-hopeful. (The marriage works about as well as it does in other pieces of Yuletide garbage like Christmas with the Kranks and Home Alone.) Therein, eldest Stone boy Everett (professional piece of wood Dermot Mulroney) is home for the holidays (it's not as good, obviously, as Jodie Foster's film of the same name but it's cut from the same cloth) to introduce his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to his quirky tribe. Chief antagonist for the first hour is mousy (yeah, right) Amy (Rachel McAdams), who has an NPR duffel bag in a brief introductory shot, thus establishing her character as much as it's ever going to be established. She doesn't like Meredith because I don't know why but proceeds to brand her a racist and a boor when it seems that, mostly, Meredith is intensely uncomfortable and self-conscious. Maybe she has social anxiety disorder, or the more common stick-up-her-ass-ism. That's how appropriately-named evil mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) diagnoses her, except she calls Meredith a monkey and replaces the ass-stick with a silver spoon.
Ergo there's a little bit of classism going on here, except that beloved Everett does exactly the same thing Meredith does and wears a shirt and tie to play charades, so...physician, heal thyself, yes? Another sister (Elizabeth Reaser), older and pregnant, generally hangs out in the background until she's called on to sit by herself and watch Meet Me in St. Louis (ah, treacle-within-a-treacle, how po-mo), which, because it might jerk a tear and not because it has anything to do with anything else in the picture, Bezucha lingers on for ages. But the worst is little brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano), whose status as a deaf homosexual dating a black man (Brian White) would be fine as far as it goes if it weren't for a dinner table scene where the already unjustly-demonized Meredith is laid waste as she suggests that gay people have more hurdles to overcome than straight folk. By making being gay a point of honour or derision, you succeed only in transforming your picture into a painful message piece and an opportunity to use your characters as righteous mouthpieces for your own knee-jerk liberal politics. Sybil gets the virtuous vituperation this time around, in addition to the misty-eyed affirmation for a peculiarly fragile Thad, who, with all of these screenwriting workshop strikes against him, would surely have thicker skin by now. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly incomprehensible why Everett would ever love such a monster (Sybil, Meredith, Amy... take your pick).
The Family Stone is awful, reprehensible stuff. As soon as Meredith's sister (Home for the Holidays' own Claire Danes, luminous) arrives to lend moral support, you know just by the lighting that Everett's going to end up proposing to her instead--and as soon as you realize that, you know that for it to be okay (because the film is as interested in resolving everything as a hysterical brood-mare), The Family Stone will pair off Meredith with Everett's stoner brother Ben (Luke Wilson). Quirky! Goofy! Taken with a Christmas present that's a framed vintage photo of Keaton's character, pregnant and with breasts (did I mention that Sybil's dying? Did I need to?), it's enough to make you vomit, but you don't quite because there are a couple moments of grace, both of them involving Stone family patriarch Kelly (a superb Craig T. Nelson). Nelson turns in what is arguably the only interpretation of this rancid text that reads as warm and human; between a scene where Kelly and Ben have lunch on bleachers in the middle of a snowstorm and another in which he quietly anchors an extraordinarily badly-handled revelation sequence with red-rimmed eyes and a look of sad desperation, you'll wish the picture were about him instead of a collection of jolly dysfunction clichés, a screed on homosexuality, and the kind of "insight" into family and legacy that bean counters have programmed into the one part of the year people are most likely to forgive this breed of feckless heartfelt pap.
More modest in scale but trumping The Family Stone in terms of messages packed per celluloid inch comes writer-director Tim Kirkman's three-part, interlacing tolerance/AIDS melodrama Loggerheads, its title referring to a kind of sea turtle that bridging character Mark (Kip Pardue) seizes upon as obsession and metaphor for the unlikelihood, and inevitability, of connecting each-to-each with one another in this great big sea of living. It's not long, in other words, before you realize you're in deep. Mark befriends motel-owner George (Michael Kelly) while in another story, an uptight Reverend (Chris Sarandon) and his appropriately judgmental wife Elizabeth (Tess Harper) almost swallow their tongues after a possibly gay couple moves into their conservative North Carolina neighbourhood. And then there's the lonely spinster, Grace (Bonnie Hunt), who asks every guy of a certain age with whom she crosses paths at her rental car desk if he's been adopted. Then you find out that Mark was adopted, see, and that Grace as a child was forced to give up her son, and that the religious wackos are estranged from their gay son, the shame of which Elizabeth is reminded of by a friend's son (a florist, naturally). What a tangled web Kirkman weaves, especially once he begins to play with time in joining these three mildly hysterical strands together, avoiding the real ugly fights and recriminations (and this cast would've risen to the challenge) in favour of a lot of montages scored to Patty Griffin songs. To my mind, Kirkman should've either stuck with the over-written shirt-ripping and swollen metaphors or made a 100-minute interpretive music video. To do both bloats the proselytizing.
As a fan of Craig Lucas's screenplays for Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss, and The Secret Lives of Dentists, I approached Lucas's hyphenate debut The Dying Gaul with a huge level of anticipation. A playwright whose intimate, sentimental approach to his characters leads to people still name-checking Longtime Companion as the gay melodrama that broke through the sexual-preference barrier to become something universally affecting, Lucas at his best appears to me only subtly compromised, able to play off the bland inoffensiveness that the mainstream and the dreaded "middlebrow" demands from its "fringe" and minority artists--even if the success of his work may rely unusually upon the polish of his casts. The Dying Gaul, though, in its protestations of purity, strikes me as Lucas at his most self-conscious, shoehorned into a Player-like excoriation of the indignities of whoring your art (and your body) to strike it rich in Hollywood that plays fast and loose with its satire--enough so that it feels dated and, horrors, predictable. Could be that young gay screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), who's written a screenplay in honour of his recently-dead lover around the time of the name-checked Philadelphia, is based a little bit on Lucas and his own experiences dealing with compromise in the Hollywood meat grinder? No question--and the politics of The Dying Gaul suggest the politics of Longtime Companion's 1990. Maybe it's the appropriateness of that retrofit we should really be discussing.
Robert meets mogul Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) and Jeffrey's wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), herself an ex-screenwriter of heady stuff Jeffrey would never greenlight. Thus when Robert agrees to a million bucks to rewrite his doomed romantic couple as heterosexuals, he and Elaine have something in common: they've both been fucked over by Jeffrey. Robert literalizes that, though, and when he and an anonymous Elaine engage in a few ill-advised encounters in a chatroom (during which Robert believes that his dead lover has returned to challenge his grand selling out), The Dying Gaul begins to gain the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. Scott is fantastic here, filling out his bravura soliloquies with the kind of evil charisma from his Roger Dodger turn while real-life lover Clarkson delivers with style her brand of brittle, stentorian vulnerability. Their scenes together are comfortable and anxious at the same time--a nice evocation of what a real relationship in the fast lane probably feels like. Sarsgaard leaves less of an impression, but I wonder whether that isn't by design as well--if only the script didn't compromise his reasoning facilities. They're all good, yet they're caught in something stagy, stiff--though there's power in a few of the transitions (one IM conversation in particular is shot like a heart attack) and Steve Reich's score is a revelation, lending the picture a sense of creepy, alien peril (a lot like Jon Brion's did for Punch-Drunk Love). But when the conclusion arrives as a lion of metaphysics instead of a lamb of logical resolution, Lucas's ambition to tell a Big Story overreaches his ability to provide, as he has in the past, largeness on the head of a pin. The picture collapses in on itself at the moment we're primed for catharsis. The Dying Gaul is interesting as hell for a while, but it's got a bad case of blue balls--and the one thing Greek tragedy shouldn't desperately want is any kind of catharsis. Originally published: December 16, 2005.