Finally caught up with The Family Stone -- I know, I know, I'm so last year -- but it helped me to comprehend why I have this peculiar like/loathe relationship with TV's Love Monkey, which means now I'm like, totally this month. So work with me here, okay?
Given its bevy of actresses I love (Diane Keaton and Claire Danes is already a dream cast in my book, but throw in Sarah J.P. and Rachel McAdams and be still my, um, heart) the only reason I didn't get to Stone sooner is that I had read Thomas Bezucha's script long before the movie sleighed into town for the holidays. I'd liked it, but I wasn't in a hurry (that's what often happens when you know the ending).
Anyway: not a great movie, not an awful one. In my last post, I talked about how any given movie establishes an Acceptable Level of Manipulation (ALM), meaning how much you’re willing to let your emotional buttons be pushed, before you cry foul. In these terms, The Family Stone has an ALM that veers dangerously high for its genre, but it kind of gets away with it.
What is The Family Stone selling? Family, of course, and not just any family, but look! Diane Keaton as the smart and lovable matriarch, that guy who played Coach as the understanding mensch of a dad, one successful son who's as handsome as Dermot Mulroney (he is Dermot Mulroney), the other an affable pot-smoking-but-well-adjusted slacker, one daughter a snarky beauty, the other beneficently preggers, and piece de' politically correct resistance, a gay son who's deaf, no less, with an African-American lover whom everyone accepts and adores. And they all love each other very, very much, and they live in one of those big bucolic New England Perfect old houses that would fit just fine in an antique snow globe.
Amazingly, writer-director Thomas Bezucha pretty much makes it all work. The sell is a fun hang with an idealized big, close-knit brood of liberals, and what makes it bearable, what creates the Acceptable Level of Manipulation is a neatly amusing notion: when Sarah Jessica Parker, playing a sort of anti-Carrie Bradshaw, comes on board as Dermot's fish-out-of-water fiancee-to-be, the entire lovable family Stone... acts like assholes. Liberal-shmiberal, they're as intolerant of She Who Doth Not Fit as any stereotypical passel of rednecked hicks.
[*SPOILER ALERT!* You might want to skip this and the next para if you're planning on seeing Stone.] The various ensemble romantic comedy contrivances that ensue in Act 2 threaten to cross the ALM line, since we're expected to buy a mate switcheroo involving brothers and sisters that would have seemed dicey even in Shakespearian times. But interestingly, the movie's use of what could be a major ALM-buster -- Mom's dying of cancer -- turns out to be the very thing that anchors the whole enterprise in credibility.
It's partially Keaton's great work and partially good writing, but one brief intimate scene between her and hub Craig T. Nelson in which the heart-wrenching reality of her situation is acknowledged is manipulative in the best sense -- it gets us in touch with a depth of emotion that tacitly justifies all the "high jinks ensue" around it. And the whole issue is handled with a deft grace that keeps the movie from sliding into bathos.
It was thinking about how moved I'd been by this otherwise lightweight comedy that made me understand why Love Monkey makes me crazy. Monkey's wish fulfillment fantasy sell can be more or less summed up as: how would you like to live the life of a young music biz exec who's the acme of hip but humble about it, has issues with women but is catnip to the hot ones, and has such integrity up the wazoo that he gets to stick it to the Man, on a weekly basis?
Monkey is a show that is cannily (or sickeningly) calculated to cash in on three demographics: young folks who'd like to live such a cool Peter Pan fantasy when they grow up, working stiffs who'd like to think they could do this gig, and aging boomers who used to be cool and can nostalgically relive their fantasy life. In other words, they've got us coming and going, at least in theory.
Having actually been a working musician and on a record label, back in the day, I should be just the kind of viewer to get sucked in. Instead, I found myself watching the show with a mixture of amusement and revulsion. All its detail work is so calculated, so blatantly designed to make its viewers feel knowing, inside, hip-to-the-video-clip -- it's got things just almost right enough, and just terribly wrong, to make me want to throw things at the set.
Because please, it’s bad sitcom fare: the show’s passel of PC male friends for Tom, one of them black (Larenz Tate) and one of them Jason Priestley, is completely clunky. And the lovely Judy Greer is wasted in the tired role of the girl-as-friend-who-should-be-girlfriend. Yet undeniably, the Ed in the Music Biz fantasy of it all, the “regular, kind-of-mixed-up guy with good intentions gets to be music industry super-hero” idea, exerts a strong pull.
Still, the uneven writing is slick and involving at its best, and "huh?" level tin-earred, at its worst. And it betrays a certain insecurity. Case in point: in last week's episode hero Tom Cavanaugh got upset because a rival exec at his label called him "a suit." He then went on to show everyone how music true-blue he really was, by pulling off a coup in which he melded corporate candy-pop with cool alt-rock, for a good cause (don't ask). After which love interest Ivana Milicevic sidled up to the rival exec and said of our hero, "He's really good, isn't he?" Rival exec agreed. Well, any time a show’s secondary characters tell each other on screen how great the lead protagonist is, you know you're in trouble.
But this show does have its version of Stone's dying matriarch to ground it: its villain, the evil corporate label head played by Eric Bogosian. Devil-like Bogosian is on board to tell Cavanaugh that the two of them are really only two sides of the same coin, and well... he's right. And so long as Bogosian, who clearly relishes his role, is in the room, he's a walking ALM meter for Monkey. He's a welcome reminder that on some level, bullshit is bullshit.
But letting the viewer know that is a bit different from confronting your viewer with painful emotional truths about death, and what it means to know you’re leaving the ones you love. I guess what I’m saying is that Family at least makes an honest attempt to move me, whereas Monkey seems more honest in its attempt to move units. Its featured “discovery,” singer-songwriter and John Mayer sound-alike Teddy Geiger, is not in fact a bracing new talent out of alt-left field, but an artist already signed to mega-corp Sony/BMG.
Most of the time, the show’s blatantly transparent attempts to sell me an idealized version of my own wish fulfillment fantasies are merely annoying, but last week, they really went too far. Ivana, asked to name her five favorite songs, led with Dylan’s Visions of Johanna (a Clash tune was in there, of course, to insure rock cred). Well, Johanna is in fact my favorite Dylan song – mine and who knows how many thousands of other Dylan lovers. Johanna was the perfect Monkey choice because it’s far hipper than say, Like a Rolling Stone, thus forcing its target demographic to think “you get me, you really, really get me!” and Tom (the surrogate us) to immediately lose it. “You had me at Dylan,” his voice-over sighs.
And for me, the prospect of a woman who looks like Ivana Millicevic and moves to the beat of Visions of Johanna – it’s not an impossibility, but talk about a writer’s fantasy! – is both unbearable and irresistible. Can’t pretend I wouldn’t mind hanging out with her and my surrogate super-hero self, even though the level of manipulation is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE. You fuckers, you manipulative network/corporation-sucking whores, you’ve really done it this time. ‘Cause in truth, there is no way I’m missing Love Monkey next week.