RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Gorillas and lions roam the movie theater landscape this weekend. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says if you want to escape the fantasy for reality, the movie "The Family Stone" is a world anyone will recognize.
KENNETH TURAN reporting:
Hollywood is always making family comedies, but these are rarely about real families, about people who both love and irritate the heck out of each other, families like the family Stone. "The Family Stone" is a contemporary version of the traditional screwball romantic comedy. It can be as ragged and shaggy as its family unit, but its offbeat mixture of choreographed comic crises and the bite of the real make for an enticing blend.
Helping this happen is a first-rate cast. The Stone family members include Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermott Mulroney and Luke Wilson. Playing a pair of visiting sisters are Claire Danes and Sarah Jessica Parker in one of her first post-"Sex and the City" parts. All the actors seem pleased with their roles and relaxed with each other. They are, individually and as a group, characters who can't help but be human with all the irritating, caring and irascible impulses that implies.
The story kicks in when Mulroney takes girlfriend Parker up to New England for a family Christmas. The family is lively and iconoclastic. The girlfriend doesn't have a relaxed bone in her body. Given this cultural clash, so many family members react badly to the new arrival that the film's original title was "Hating Her."
(Soundbite of "The Family Stone")
Ms. RACHEL McADAMS: (As Amy Stone) Oh, you just wait.
Ms. DIANE KEATON: (As Sybil Stone) What?
Ms. McADAMS: (As Amy Stone) She's got this incredibly grotesque throat-clearing tic. It's like (clears throat). It's like she's digging for clams.
TURAN: If "Family Stone" were a more conventional comedy, its thrust would be how the girlfriend learns to loosen up and enjoy life. But it's a little trickier here. The film takes pains to show us that though she is a difficult person, she is not a bad one. Also the Stone family's callous treatment of her begins to present them in a less-than-flattering light.
Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Meredith Morton) I mean, I'm really sorry that you had to sleep on the couch last night. Maybe we can take turns.
Ms. McADAMS: (As Amy Stone) Don't sweat it.
Ms. PARKER: (As Meredith Morton) I wish you'd give me a chance. Whatever it is that I did wrong...
Ms. McADAMS: (As Amy Stone) I said, don't sweat it.
Ms. PARKER: (As Meredith Morton) I don't know what I did to you, I really don't, but, you know, I don't care whether you like me or not.
Ms. McADAMS: (As Amy Stone) Oh, of course, you do.
TURAN: "The Family Stone" has a tendency to push too hard, but Parker and the rest of the cast are good enough to overcome that. And the film does have a gift for keeping its narrative balls moving along smartly. It's not a completely traditional romantic comedy, so we're never sure exactly how things will turn out, which is as close to an unexpected holiday gift as we're likely to get.
MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION.
This is NPR News.