Over/Under: ‘Love Actually’ vs. ‘The Family Stone’

Over Under: A New Perspective on Films New and OldRecently, I found myself looking for a movie to watch that was Christmasy and festive, but not necessarily something so holiday-themed that it had Santa Clauses, reindeer, and Jesuses in it. You know, something about normal people but set around the time of the holidays. While perusing all of the top ten holiday movie lists that I could find around the web, I saw one title keep popping up again and again, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. I never saw this one when it came out, it just looked like another generic romantic comedy to me, but it turns out a lot of people love to watch it every year around the Christmas season. And further research led me to the fact that a lot of people mention it as one of the few romantic comedies that’s actually good from the last decade as well. Sounded strong enough for me to give it a watch.

It turns out I didn’t much care for the film, though, and my need for something Christmasy had been left unsated. Not willing to go out on another limb, I decided to revisit a film that I had already seen before, one that I remembered enjoying much more than I was expecting to back when it was released. This second choice was Thomas Bezucha’s 2005 film The Family Stone, which already seems to be rather forgotten. Luckily for me, time did not prove my idiocy, because upon a second watch I found that I still enjoyed this one quite a bit.

What do they have in common?

They’re both stories about the approach to Christmas, and a window into people’s lives as they prepare to celebrate the holiday. You see, just because Christmas is coming doesn’t mean that everything else in your life stops, and the characters in these films often find that when their ongoing problems get augmented by the added pressure of the holiday, things tend to get a little manic. Also, both of these movies are ensemble pieces with big casts, lots of name actors, and multiple storylines that need to be juggled. Mostly romantic storylines; both of these things end with a series of couples getting together. Isn’t that romantic? And just in time for Christmas!

Why is Love Actually overrated?

After watching about twenty minutes of this movie I realized that I wasn’t remotely interested in anything that was happening other than Liam Neeson dealing with the death of his wife, and then even that storyline got derailed by his young son’s quest for puppy love. I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus and name names, but the multiple people who cited this as being one of the good romantic comedies all owe me a drink. Love Actually is lazy and pandering. There are just too many characters here; the whole thing is disjointed and sprawling. It’s like the screenwriter and the editor made no choices at all and threw everything they could come up with against a wall hoping that eventually something would stick. The writing is just shoddy.

Characters act in ridiculous ways just to move the plot along (would that guy who loves Keira Knightley really shoot her wedding video as solely closeups of her face, even if he was infatuated with her? What a psychopath!), extreme lengths are gone to in a desperate search for laughs (was that subplot with the guy who goes to America to meet girls necessary? It’s the only part of the movie that’s farcical and it stuck out like a sore thumb), and the dang thing even leaves us with the biggest cliché of them all – the frantic chase to the airport. It’s like Curtis used scissors and glue to cut up every other romantic comedy he’d ever seen and make a ransom note version of a movie. I would be hard-pressed to think of anything I liked about this one save for the presence of Alan Rickman.

How could a movie be one of the best romantic comedies of modern times when it never even manages to be funny? The best thing Love Actually has going for it is Bill Nighy playing a lame but self-aware aging rocker, but even that was mostly just a waste of Bill Nighy; and Curtis’s script seemed to think that the gag of his terrible singing was so great that he could go back to the well a million times and it would still be funny. It wasn’t. It got old. And has Curtis even met another man before in his life? None of the male characters in this movie act like any guy I’ve ever met, and there were about a million moments that came off as shameless pandering to the female audience. When Hugh Grant’s character is alone he dances to Pointer Sisters songs. Really? A straight guy does this? And when Liam Neeson’s son is heartbroken they lay on the couch and watch Titanic together. Seriously? In what universe? There is so little for a man to like in this movie that it would have driven me crazy even if I didn’t have to hear that horrible Mariah Carey Christmas song a million times over the course of its duration.

Why is The Family Stone underpraised?

Here’s a romantic comedy that manages to both be funny and also nail some of its dramatic moments, which should pretty much be a prerequisite of the genre, but unfortunately is all too rare. Like Love Actually, this is a movie with a bunch of different characters and a bunch of different stuff happening all at once, but unlike that movie everything going down is happening in the same location and it’s all interrelated in some way. This is a much more conventional way to tell a story, and for a reason; what you get feels like a meaty, complete experience instead of a collection of half-told vignettes. You’re able to have as many characters, but not get bored with what they’re doing, because they’re always bouncing off of each other in different combinations rather than sticking to their small little storylines where they only interact with one or two people.

The Family Stone isn’t just a comedy that throws wacky personalities in the same room and has them bounce off of each other either. There is some of that, but then there’s also some really awkward, uncomfortable moments that inspire nervous laughter the likes of which I haven’t seen since the UK Office. Sarah Jessica Parker is playing a very uptight, WASPy character trying to integrate herself into pretty much the most liberal family on the planet, and things get pretty hairy. Just try to listen to her give her speech about how people should wish for straight children so their lives will be easier in front of this family’s gay, deaf member and not squirm in your seat.  But, conversely, try to sit through the scene where she almost redeems herself by getting the family a really thoughtful present and not get choked up a bit. The Family Stone isn’t the most solid movie all the way through, but it has really strong moments.

And the ensemble is just killer. Luke Wilson is a comedic tornado in this, every scene he steps into instantly gets about ten times nuttier because of his presence. What does comedic heaven look like? To me it probably looks like Luke Wilson wearing sweatpants and not caring how close his unit gets to other people’s faces. And what does real heaven look like? To me it’s probably a brunette Rachel McAdams wearing sweatpants and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt. Talk about overcasting for the role of the bitchy sister; in addition to being stunning, McAdams also manages to really impress with her performance in a pretty basic role. By the time Paul Schneider shows up just to play a really small part near the end, I was shaking my head in disbelief at all of the good acting in such a simple, Christmas-themed romantic comedy.

Evening the odds.

Love Actually ends with a Beach Boys song and images of a bunch of smiling people hugging and crying. I’m pretty sure that’s why so many remember it fondly, but come on, that’s not playing fair! And tear-jerking finales don’t change the fact that this movie is little more than every contrived rom-com trope condensed into a power bar of schmaltz. I’d like to see it start getting bumped off some of these lists.

I think everyone avoids The Family Stone because it was marketed as a Sarah Jessica Parker movie, and I get it…she’s pretty annoying. But that’s not what this is at all. It’s much more of an ensemble. As a matter of fact, this is pretty much two hours of people sitting around making fun of Sarah Jessica Parker. How can you go wrong with that? It might not need to become a seasonal tradition, but The Family Stone would definitely be an enjoyable watch next time you get bored around the holidays.

God only knows where you’d be without more Over/Under

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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