Anything But Sly: Secret Family-Holiday-Movie Formula Revealed


It’s hard to fathom why anyone would voluntarily endure a holiday family reunion movie (hereafter HFRM)—a genre devised solely to demonstrate how grotesque and how heartwarming families can be—when actual holiday family reunions already exist for those very reasons. This season’s HFRM, The Family Stone, settles in for a bromide-soaked Christmas with the vaguely bohemian titular clan in their shabby-chic New England manse, and seems to have been written by the same computer program as any number of recent predecessors (Home for the Holidays, The Myth of Fingerprints,
Pieces of April). For those who can’t afford the software, here are three easy steps:

1. Include an outsider. The most useful figure in the HFRM, the interloper serves either as counterpoint to the functionally dysfunctional family or as the tight-knit brood’s common object of ridicule. Or both: In The Family Stone, the prodigal son (Dermot Mulroney, doing a reasonable impersonation of a concrete post) brings home a tense, frigid, multitasking city bitch with a constantly ringing cell phone and a severe bun (Sarah Jessica Parker). Will the loosey-goosey Stones thaw out the WASP icicle? Will she in turn, once she literally lets her hair down, teach them not to be so judgmental? People who have never seen movies will be on the edge of their seats.

2. Add minorities. The HFRM is a bourgeois white preserve, but a sprinkling of Others conjures the illusion of social relevance. You can actually be racist and hope no one minds, like Pieces of April (your viewers will after all be mostly bourgeois and white). Or like The Family Stone, you can attribute bigotry to unsympathetic characters for comic foot-in-mouth moments. In Stone writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s all-of-the-above scripting masterstroke, the youngest son (Tyrone Giordano) is (a) deaf, (b) gay, and (c) has a black boyfriend. The movie lavishes praise on the enlightened Stones for not treating these attributes like handicaps. Or maybe, since these are the two most boring, neutered homosexuals in film history, it’s just that no one notices them (Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia look like Genet sodomites by comparison). In the interest of realism, note that gays at holidays tend to behave more like Robert Downey Jr. in Home for the Holidays (or Robert Downey Jr. in any movie since Natural Born Killers).

3. Give Mom cancer. Other illnesses with other family members work too, but this combo has a foolproof classicism. The HFRM is not generally an actor’s showcase—almost everyone in the ensemble gets at best one characteristic each (amazing what some performers can do with this: Stone‘s Luke Wilson, as if taking his cue from a Bresson model, fashions a paragon of beatific slackerdom from a single, mildly stunned expression). But for Mom, you’ll need someone with presence: Patricia Clarkson in April or, better still, Diane Keaton in Stone, looking like a Sontagian lioness and acting batshit. Don’t play the terminal card before the second half, though. This gives you enough time to set her up as eccentric, unstable, even mean. The crazier the better—all will be weepily forgiven in due course.