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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
Jnauary 1, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Family Stone, S Is for Silence

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but heaven knows, some moviemakers try very, very hard.

The script of The Family Stone is one of the worst of the year, rivaling only Home for the Holidays for meanness, smugness, and unwatchability. And yet there are clear signs that the writer-director, Thomas Bezucha -- or perhaps the executive who insisted on revisions -- was keenly aware that the script had no characters that were believable and likeable at the same time, and tried to compensate for it.

It's odd that whenever Hollywood writers want to show people how bad Conservative People are, they can never show real conservatives (though there are certainly some wacky ones they could draw on); nor, when they want to show how noble Liberal People are, are they any better.

For instance, the parents of the family in this movie are written to be liberal icons. But they're actually complete failures as parents. The father (Craig T. Nelson) is a vague, ineffectual fellow whose heart is in the right place, but it's obvious that he can hardly make a move in his own home without fearing the consequences if he upsets Mom.

Mom (Diane Keaton), on the other hand, is a weird mixture of a rebellious adolescent's "dream mother" -- you know, the kind who never says no to her kids no matter how offensive or outrageous their behavior is -- and the domineering "nightmare mother" who always has to have her own way and runs roughshod over everyone else, all the while smiling and pretending that she's not demanding anything for herself at all, she's only Thinking of Them.

The mother reminded me of a woman I ran into in the Greensboro airport the other day, in the long line approaching the security checkpoints. She had two very young daughters with her, and barely paid attention to them. So they would sit down wherever they wanted to, and while she moved ahead in the line, they would sigh and slowly, slo-o-o-owly get up and walk another ten steps and then camp again.

It's not as if the line was going to move any faster. But those little girls' heads were right at the level where a passing piece of luggage could easily give them a smack without the luggage-bearer ever having seen the child. Plus, one of the primary jobs of parents is to teach their children to behave in a socially responsible way -- including the obligation to move forward continuously in line and not park under other people's feet while Mom talks on a cellphone.

When the slowest of the children began moving forward by remaining seated and only sliding her bottom along the carpet, her legs moving like an inchworm, I said (in a cheerful, take-this-as-humor voice), "You know, if you stand up and walk, you'll stay closer to your mom."

In other words, I was giving a big broad hint to the mother to watch her children, please, for their own safety if nothing else.

The mother did hear me, as I intended. She immediately turned to the little girl and in that sticky-sweet voice that Southern women use when they want to be insulting while pretending that they're being nice, she said to the girl, "You can move along on your bottom if you want to."

The message to me was clear: You have no right to talk to my children.

Yeah, well, I thought my message had been just as clear: You're doing a lousy job as a mother.

So I coldly said, "I'm sorry I addressed your child."

"Oh, I don't mind," she lied sweetly. "I just want to make sure that she knows she doesn't have to obey you."

Well, first of all, I hadn't given the child any orders at all. And, more importantly, it was obvious that the little girl already knew she didn't have to obey me -- or anybody else.

Such parents think they're being so careful -- don't obey strange men, darling! -- when in fact they are lazy and inattentive, not caring that their children are growing up without any sense of being responsible to other people for their own behavior. If kids don't learn this from their parents, where will they learn it? From the schools, which have been stripped of any authority over the children they supposedly teach?

Here is what the actual scientific research shows: The happiest children are those raised in families with parents who expect civilized behavior, and who lay down and enforce consistent, sensible rules.

But ... rules are so Conservative! Politically Correct parents "empower" their children -- and if research shows this feels to the child very much as if nobody cares about her, well, we open-minded people don't actually have to learn anything, do we? We'll just do the opposite of what parents used to do, and that will make us Good.

This is the "mother" that Diane Keaton was playing in The Family Stone: A smug woman who congratulated herself for never having expected her children to learn any self-discipline at all.

The script was honest this far: The children in the family were in fact as miserable, selfish, lost, and anti-social as you'd expect.

So when oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings home his soon-to-be fiancee, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom the youngest daughter had met once and disliked, the family makes no effort at all to treat her decently.

Including Everett himself. For instance, one of his brothers, Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is both deaf and gay, and the family uses sign language to augment their conversation, but only about a quarter of the time. Thad must therefore be a very good lip reader, and because he has a hearing aid, one gathers that he does hear some things.

But when the uptight Meredith tries to include him in the conversation by speaking loudly to him, everyone in the family reacts with embarrassment. She's Behaving Badly! She's pointing out his deafness and talking loud!

Well, if that was a faux pas in this family, why hadn't Everett prepared her? "Don't talk louder to my brother Thad -- he catches most things and he doesn't like it when people shout."

And given her boyfriend's lack of preparation, what's to stop someone from saying to her, "Oh, darling, he reads lips, so we don't talk louder for him. That's all right, you had no way of knowing, and it's lovely of you to try to include him."

But no, nothing that simple and decent, because these people are slime. They prefer letting her flounder about, making mistakes but never being told what they are, so they can sneer at her behind her back while never helping her learn how to fit in with their rules.

Because, you see, they do have rules, ironclad rules, and a religion that everyone else is expected to adhere to slavishly. But part of their religion is to pretend they don't have one, or any rules either. So they can't tell you the rules, they have to pretend that decent people already know them.

Thus your violations of the family religion must be the result of your own moral failure, so the family can smugly judge and condemn you -- even though you are mostly behaving according to a well-recognized set of rules called Polite Behavior. How quaint! How bourgeouis! How ridiculous!

But because we have to make Meredith truly horrible, we have the dinner table scene, where the conversation wanders onto the subject of Thad's homosexuality.

Now, Thad and his African-American lover, Patrick (Brian White), have already been set up in that patronizing way that should make every gay person -- and black person, and deaf person -- in the audience cringe with embarrassment. They embody virtue in every way. Always kind and loving, patient and truly tolerant -- in other words, nothing like the rest of the family.

But Thad is also extremely weak and protected by everybody else in the family, including his lover, who behaves more like a full-fledged family member than Thad does. Thad is never allowed to speak for himself, or defend himself -- no, others always intervene for him as if he were five years old.

However, we are supposed to recognize that because of his double-victim status, he is the icon of virtue -- though of course we would never dream of calling him a victim at all, would we? The family treats him like their fragile little flower, but everyone has to pretend that he is perfectly normal.

Here's where the movie turns into a pure lie. Meredith is supposed to be in arbitrage or some other field that involves her with mergers or IPOs or whatever. In any event, it's a field of work where you have to be a superb negotiator. And she is sent abroad to do these negotiations in places where she must deal with Chinese rules of politeness, which requires far more delicacy than when you're dealing with mere Americans.

In other words, she is skilled at adapting to other cultures, at making other people comfortable, and, above all, at keeping her mouth shut.

Yet instead, Thomas Bezucha has her bring up a Conservative theory of homosexuality in a context where no educated, intelligent person would have said anything. It was obvious that this family would not be receptive to her statements; if she knew anything at all about negotiations, she would have recognized that she had already overstepped her bounds, and she would have apologized sweetly and changed the subject.

When somebody else changed the subject, she would have accepted the rescue. But no, she plunges on, proving herself to be a complete idiot.

The odd thing is that Bezucha was inadvertently honest about the family's reaction to her impossible behavior -- no idea was ever answered with an idea, but only with absurd affirmations of their religious faith. In this family, we believe ...

And, of course, Thad says nothing at all until after Meredith has fled the room, whereupon he is "hurt" in such a cliched, spineless way (where has he been living, on the moon?) that one expects him to turn to someone and say, "But am I pretty? Will I grow up to be pretty?" It's just pathetic.

This movie reeks of political correctness, but it's clear that the writer is perfectly happy to purvey a complete set of stereotypes about gay people -- as long as they're "positive" stereotypes. Only they aren't positive at all. I've known gay people with very sweet dispositions (and, of course, some with surly ones) -- but even the gentlest was never passive.

It's like the old stereotype of the Virtuous Woman -- always needing to be rescued.

Then we come to the ending, where people's hearts and minds transform in absolutely unbelievable ways, without the slightest motivation; and these vile, judgmental, cruel people are suddenly OK because one character gets drunk and "loosens up" and another character has a moonlight walk with a Cool Person -- who is cool in cliche 1960s flower child ways.

There is no sign in the entire movie that Everett ever loved Meredith at all, and no sign of why she loved him -- or thought he loved her!

If you actually intend to see this movie, skip this paragraph. Right now. SKIP IT! (OK, you were warned.) The fact that one of the characters is dying is apparently meant to make us forgive her for all her selfish, neglectful, self-righteous behavior; but all we really learn is that a year later, in the epilogue, the family really is happy -- apparently because she's dead and gone.

Surely that was not the message that Thomas Bezucha intended!

And yet in this one-sided Sunday school morality play (for the Church of the Politically Correct), it was obvious that the filmmakers tried to show some balance. They just had no clue what balance actually is. They have lived inside the cocoon of their religion for so long that apparently none of them has ever seen a genuine Conservative (for instance, most of them think Bill O'Reilly is one).

Hollywood movies would be vastly improved if the people creating these films would get out of their little box and meet some regular people now and then.

Here's the most unfortunate aspect of this film: The acting is superb.

They are all wonderful actors at the top of their form. Sarah Jessica Parker is cast against type, and she does a heroic job of trying to make her incoherently written character seem like a real person. Dermot Mulroney almost keeps us from noticing the emptiness of Everett; Craig T. Nelson reminds us that long before Coach, he was a first-rate actor, and he remains one today. Claire Danes is luminous, and Luke Wilson, Tyrone Giordano, and Brian White manage to make us forget that their characters are nothing but offensive cliches.

And Paul Schneider, as Amy's old boyfriend, Brad, is tender and wonderful, even if his character is pushed around on the end of a stick.

Above all, this movie is completely stolen by Rachel McAdams as the obnoxious younger sister, Amy. She plays a completely smug, hateful person, and doesn't pretend otherwise -- but she manages to make us like her, to see that she doesn't really understand how vile she is. In other words, she does the impossible: She transcends this nasty, confusing, ignorant script.

The primary thing we learn from watching The Family Stone is that before Hollywood writers and directors can make a movie about a family, perhaps they need to grow up past their own adolescence and see past their own religious dogmas.

In other words, go out and have a life, meet some people who aren't telling you you're a genius, and honestly understand real human relationships before you make actors say and do the things you write for them.

Even -- no, especially -- when you're trying to write a comedy.

*

Sue Grafton's "Alphabet Mysteries" have shown a fascinating progression. In the early books, there was a bit of rough language -- enough to put off some readers. (Quite soon the R-rated language faded and now seems to have disappeared.)

Grafton also flirted with It's-about-the-detective Syndrome, as her sleuth, Kinsey Milhone, fell in and out of love and found out more about her family. The danger? This is what killed Moonlighting, that Cybill Shepherd/Bruce Willis detective series from the late '80s. The writers forgot to make each episode's mystery fascinating and rewarding in itself -- the mysteries became perfunctory and it was all about the romance between Maddie and David.

We've seen something similar with Robert Parker's "Spenser" series, where a lot of readers got weary of Spenser constantly bowing and scraping to Susan Silverman, his significant other, as if she could do no wrong and was never required to compromise in order to make the relationship work. Parker has, at least in the last few novels, backed off a little; in the most recent "Spenser," Silverman was out of town through most of the book.

There's also a danger that the mystery writer will become too dependent on the supporting cast. It's true that readers "demand" that their favorites be in every book -- but so what? It's only a relative handful of the readers who always have to see the pig guy in the Joan Hess's "Maggody" books or Hagrid in the Harry Potter books or Grandma Mazur in every volume of Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series.

A lot of us get sick of the same jokes, the same crises, in book after book. And when the minor characters take over and deform the storylines -- when Happy Days became about the Fonz every week -- sales can stay high for a while, but more and more of the audience are only going through the motions, and finally they don't much care anymore. I've stopped reading Hess. I'm not thrilled about reading the next Evanovich. I don't think the jokes are funny any more. The world of the book has become too small.

Grafton, however, has never crossed the line. And with S Is for Silence, the latest and, in my opinion, very best of the series, she has returned to writing a pure mystery. Kinsey Milhone is still herself, though a little older and no longer driven quite so much by romantic impulses and inner demons. But this story is about other people, seen through Milhone's eyes as she tries to get to the root of a story that most people have given up on.

In fact, for the first time I really believe Grafton has emerged as the true heir of Ross MacDonald, who died only four years before Grafton's first book came out. Kinsey Milhone has a past, but her focus is on the problems at hand. She is compassionate without getting sentimental or self-celebrating about it.

And Grafton, as a writer, is in the same league as MacDonald, or nearly so. Oh, she has her share of errors, but I suspect they say more about the quality of editing and proofreading. I'd be interested to know if the phrase "I glanced my watch" (p. 14) reflects a new twist in English -- "glance" becoming a transitive verb -- or simply a word-processing error that everybody missed.

And when an obvious error is made -- "He knew his humiliation was commiserate with his joy" instead of "commensurate with his joy" -- well, not every writer can know every word, or catch every "correction" made by incompetent editors.

But, like MacDonald, when Grafton is up to speed her writing is so fluid you barely notice it. But it's there, quirky in a subtle way. I'm glad to read a character whose take on another person is: "Her nails were bitten down so far it made me want to tuck my own fingertips into my palms for safekeeping." That's just sweet.

And yet you don't have to notice it. It's not an extravagant, showy metaphor, just a slight, humorous exaggeration that feels like you're listening to a good and witty friend tell you a story.

When Milhone is questioning her client about the last time she saw her mother before she disappeared, here's the conversation:

"You remember anything else from those last few days?"

"A bubble bath. It's the little things that get you. I was sitting in the tub and she was on her way out. She stuck her head in the door ... that little yappy dog in her arms ... and she blew me a kiss. If I'd known it was the last one I'd ever get, I'd have made her come back and kiss me for real."

We had already seen the actual scene. It was a deliberately awkward moment. The reader is thinking, Come on, you can't refuse to kiss your daughter good night just because your lipstick would get messed up! But of course women do that sort of thing all the time -- they have to, or the mothers of young children would never get out of the house with their makeup intact. You don't know that it's the last time you'll see each other.

So that swatch of dialogue is important information about the victim's state of mind. But it is also revelatory about her daughter, the woman who hired Milhone to find out what happened to her mother. She doesn't go on and on about her jealousy of the dog. And she believes that if she had wanted to, she could have made her mother come back and kiss her. In other words, she isn't blaming her mother, even if she ran away voluntarily. It gives us some hope for her to heal, even if her life is a mess right now.

All the characterization is handled in this same, understated way. The character Milhone (who narrates the story) has her opinions of the people she meets, but she generally keeps them to herself, letting us reach our own conclusions, have our own insights -- though of course they're all based on information Grafton provides for us.

This is the work of a gifted and mature writer working at the peak of her form.

And you don't have to have read any of the earlier "Alphabet mysteries." You can start with this one -- and if you haven't read any Grafton, I suggest that you waste no more time and start with S Is for Silence.


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