It’s difficult to pinpoint all of the reasons why The Family Stone is such a disenchanting flick. With an ensemble of talented performers and a promising set-up for a solid dramedy, it had the potential to be a brilliant, poignant Christmas movie. Alas, the resulting flick is a far cry from what it should have been. The Family Stone wanted to be a funny, touching and relevant exploration of familial dynamics, but aspiration is not the same thing as achievement. Perhaps the film’s biggest downfall is the tedious storytelling, or maybe it’s the leaden pacing or the way it shamelessly manipulates for emotions… Nay, the most glaring thing about The Family Stone is that the characters are so fundamentally unlikeable, even intolerable. A dark comedy exploring the tension between seriously flawed people is fine, but this venture falls short because it’s too contrived and too reliant on depthless caricatures to achieve its desired maturity.

Christmas is rapidly approaching, and businessman Everett Stone (Mulroney) intends to bring his girlfriend Meredith (Parker) back to his New England hometown to meet his family for the first time. The Stone family – including parents Sybil (Keaton) and Kelly (Nelson), and their children: the rebellious Amy (McAdams), openly deaf & gay Thad (Giordano), stoner Ben (Wilson), and the pregnant Susannah (Reaser) – take an immediate dislike to Meredith, believing her to be the wrong girl for Everett. As the festive season wears on, Meredith keeps falling deeper in over her head, continuously conflicting with the family. For support and reinforcement, Meredith decides to call in her sister Julie (Danes), further escalating the dramas of the household during what was intended to be a pleasant Christmas celebration.

The Family Stone immediately falters on account of the shallow, detestable characters. It’s hard to say who’s worse: the Stone family who are so callous towards Meredith, or Meredith herself, who seems to make an effort to justify their contempt. It appears that writer-director Thomas Bezucha specifically designed Meredith to ensure her every characteristic will clash with the family and elicit disdain from viewers, which is exactly why she never seems like a real human being. For instance, she has the innate ability to be offensive and not know it – we’re supposed to believe she’s accidentally racist, and that she accidentally insults homosexuals without realising how awful she’s being. It’s cheap, unbelievable characterisation. And when Meredith starts to loosen up a bit, the moment doesn’t come naturally: it feels forced by the demands of the script to bring about a new plot point. Then there are the Stones, who are stubborn and arrogant. Who the hell are viewers supposed to root for or latch onto in such a situation? Well, nobody, unfortunately.

Throughout The Family Stone‘s first two acts, most every scene appears to have been awkwardly formulated to create contrived conflict. Sure, this type of stuff could have worked, but it’s entirely ineffective without a sense of humanity. The characters never achieve any semblance of depth; they’re all empty ciphers saddled with a stereotype as if Bezucha was working from a laundry list of characters to include. Take, for instance, Thad, who’s easily the most likeable of the bunch, but who seems to have been born out of the writer-director’s self-congratulatory attitude. After all, Thad is deaf and homosexual, and his life partner is an African American man. The two do not ring as authentic people; it feels as if they were included just so the director could just pat himself on the back. Making matters worse is how contrived most of the proceedings are. Most notably, the Stones instantly spit poison at Meredith but seem to immediately love Meredith’s younger sister Julie. Before they even get to know Julie, the family seem fine with the notion of her getting involved with family members. Add to this mixture a major character suffering from a terminal illness for more tear-wringing, and The Family Stone feels far too calculated for its own good.

The ensemble cast is a mixed bag. Craig T. Nelson did a great job as the family’s soft-spoken patriarch, while Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Tyrone Giordano are all strong, but everyone else fails to make much of an impact (even Claire Danes is forgettable). To their credit, it looks like the predominantly talented cast gave it their best, but they’re ultimately hamstrung by such a laboured screenplay.

Exacerbating the issue of the unlikeable characters is that writer-director Thomas Bezucha has a poor grasp on pacing and storytelling. The Family Stone doesn’t ever come alive and engage with lively writing or a sense of genuine momentum; it just sits there on the screen, unfolding in a drab, routine manner. It has a handful of nice moments throughout, but as a whole the film fails to gel. The attempts at comedy often fall flat and the dramatic scenes simply aren’t very powerful, while the shifts between these two competing tones are often jarring. As the end credits began to roll on The Family Stone, this reviewer was left with a very sour feeling indeed.