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‘Family Stone’ is close to being a classic

Great cast, performances sometimes get bogged down by a cartoonish plot

Writer-director Thomas G. Bezucha’s “The Family Stone” desperately wants to be a 21st Century Christmas classic, and at times it comes heartbreakingly close to achieving that goal.

The movie is at its most affecting when it borrows the emotional high point of a true holiday classic — Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from “Meet Me in St. Louis” — and finds fresh ways to apply its bittersweet tone to another holiday family gathering.

But Bezucha’s movie suffers from multiple-personality disorder. For every touching moment, there’s a miscalculated touch of slapstick, or a gratuitously bitchy confrontation, or a revelation of a devastating family secret that seems to have been included just for tearjerking effect.

Preparing to reunite with their grown kids in a snowy Christmas-card setting, Sybil and Kelly Stone (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson) are the proud bohemian parents of slacker Ben (Luke Wilson), button-downed professional Everett (Dermot Mulroney), sharp-tongued Amy (Rachel McAdams), maternal Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and deaf and gay Thad (Ty Giordano).

The Stones bend over backward to welcome Thad and his adoring boyfriend Patrick (Brian White), but they become aggressively hostile to Everett’s uptight new girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is roundly chastised for blurting out a homophobic comment at the dinner table.

Meredith calls her charming sister Julie (Claire Danes) to rescue her, and the inevitable happens: Julie turns Christmas Eve into a game of change-partners-and-dance. Everett is smitten with Julie, and when Ben boozily introduces Meredith to Amy’s old boyfriend Brad (Paul Schneider), more romantic complications set in.

At about this point, Bezucha’s wish-fulfillment fantasies begin to become a burden. Like a thriller with too many unlikely twists and surprises, the picture loses its balance. Sometimes the script’s uneven tone seems entirely intentional, a legitimate expression of the characters’ changing moods and their attempts to change for the better. But mostly it just seems arbitrary.

Bezucha’s low-budget gay romance, “Big Eden” (2000), had a similarly big-hearted fairy-tale quality, as well as a tendency to wrap up everything too neatly. This time, however, he’s working with a bigger and more cartoonish collection of characters, and it’s harder to buy into the sudden turnarounds in their lives.

Still, it’s difficult to stay completely dry-eyed during “The Family Stone,” thanks mostly to a group of actors who work up enough family feeling to make the big moments pay off.

Keaton has rarely made better use of her wide-screen grin to register so many conflicting emotions; she manages to be sweet, mean and sad all at the same time. Wilson, Mulroney, Nelson and Giordano (who had a similar part in “A Lot Like Love”) may be typecast, and McAdams is essentially assigned to reincarnate the same snarky ditz she played in “Wedding Crashers,” but you can’t argue that they’re miscast.

As for the outsiders visiting the reunion: Danes is as soulful as ever, Schneider manages to wring some poignancy from a throwaway character, while Parker keeps coming up with hilariously fresh ways of being hopelessly out of touch.