In my house, "the most wonderful time of the year" can't commence until Diane Keaton throws a cozy robe and scarf over her crisp, white button-down and demands to know who finished the pot of coffee.
I'm referring, of course, to the 2005 gem that is, written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, a home-for-the-holidays ensemble dramedy film that's streaming free on this year.
The festive Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle received mixed reviews when it premiered. Where audiences (ahem, me) saw an elegant seesaw of comedic hijinks and tearjerking poignancy, critics saw tonal whiplash. While audiences (also me) enjoyed the highs and lows of the film's quirky love triangle -- nay, rhombus -- critics said, "Um, what?"
But over 16 Christmas seasons, the comfy-coziest of holiday films has attracted somewhat of a cult following. A criminally small one, in my estimation, because it's the perfect Christmas movie. Here's why.
First, the setting: The Family Stone almost entirely takes place in the sprawling and charmingly cluttered New England home of empty nesters Sybil (Diane Keaton) and Kelly (Craig T. Nelson). It's Christmas, and their five adult children are returning home for the holidays. There'll be take-out pizza. There'll be a game of charades. There'll be slipper socks. If this movie has provided me with anything, it's the hope to someday procure five adult children of my own so they too may return home for the holidays and re-create the utter warmth and cheer this film radiates.
Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) is bringing home his partner, Meredith (Parker), to meet the family for the first time, and, as Sybil correctly intuits, to ask for his grandmother's heirloom wedding ring so he can propose. The wonderfully messy, raucous, bohemian Stone family, which includes very-pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), fun-loving pothead Ben (Luke Wilson in a scarf), NPR tote bag-toting Amy (Rachel McAdams), and the sweet (and deaf) Thad (Tyrone Giordano) take an instant disliking to Meredith. You see, Meredith's chignons are supertight. She wears high heels in the house. She participates in capitalism. She's a "spoiled, crazy, racist, bigot bitch from Bedford" (her words). Hilarity and havoc ensue.
That synopsis doesn't truly do the film justice though, because this is a movie whose charms transcend plot. The true Christmas miracle here is in the film's aesthetic, and you're lying to yourself if you think aesthetics aren't the most crucial element of any holiday movie. The Stone's home is hygge on steroids: So many window treatments and pillows! So many patterned wallpapers! Every bookshelf, drawer and cabinet is utterly overflowing with the detritus of family life. It's the most lived-in movie home I've ever seen. And of course there's a blanket of snow across the front yard for the duration of the film.
Then there's the dysfunctional family piece, a prerequisite of holiday fare. The Stone family may bear the designation at first glance, but if you really dig in to the movie -- if you watch it every year for a decade and a half -- you'll find they're actually quite functional. And I think this gets to why The Family Stone is such a perfect annual rewatch.
Keaton's aging matriarch is as sharp-tongued as she is affectionate. She first greets Ben with a warm hug and a warning that "Christmas is not going to be 'clothing optional' this year." She teases Amy about the guy who "popped your cherry." When Everett finally asks for the ring, she delivers an iconic Keatonian "Tough shit!" She and Kelly's marriage can only be described as aspirational. And the playful ribbing and head swatting and eye-rolling among the siblings is something I want in on. It's the family dynamic equivalent of a bowl of buttery mashed potatoes.
The other secret ingredient is the way the entire film pivots on a single line delivered by Wilson on a snowy football bleacher. You think it's going to be one movie, but then it bait-and-switches into an even better one. The line -- you'll know it when you hear it -- heightens the film to a whole other level, bringing new layers to why the Stone family is really so critical of Meredith.
I saw The Family Stone for the first time in a packed movie theater in 2005. It was so packed, in fact, that I had to sit in the dreaded front row, and I left with a crick in my neck and a warmth in my heart. On every annual rewatch since, I find new details I hadn't noticed before. The film is my yuletide touchstone in an increasingly chaotic world. For 103 minutes every December, I get to spend time with a bustling, tight-knit, hug-happy family whose love for each other is so strong it creates the circumstances for a dozen comedic fish-out-of-water set pieces.
Every year I think "Maybe the Stones will be nice to Meredith this time." Every year the Christmas Eve dinner scene becomes even more excruciating than the last. And every year I remember that packed theater, and I purse my lips in wistful resignation that they just don't make them like this anymore.