While in some cases, all you have to do is look at the casting to determine where a film will take you, sometimes it’s just as easy. You know it’ll be a tearjerker if Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts star in “Stepmom“. (With Jamie Lee Curtis and Drew Barrymore, there’s plenty of blood; with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Neve Campbell, it’s all about sex; with Neve Campbell and Drew Barrymore, it’s all about blood.) Sarandon and Roberts’ current iconography falls somewhere between feminist heroism and sainthood; if she’s the stepmom, you can guess she won’t have fangs or talons.
Nonetheless, the objective of a film like this is to hide the obvious. We get wonderful entertainments such as “Terms of Endearment” when the plot’s levers and pulleys are hidden by good writing and acting. When they’re well concealed, we obtain heartfelt movies like “One True Thing.” We receive Chris Columbus’ “Stepmom,” for example, when every prop and device is on display in the lobby as we enter the theater. One year has passed since fashion photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts) started dating businessman Luke (Ed Harris). She thinks it’s about time she could be trusted to care for his children for the weekend. He has his doubts, perhaps because she is “not used to children,” or perhaps because he still sees his ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon) as the ideal mother. It’s a question of trust. Jackie doesn’t trust Isabel (or like her). Luke appreciates her but isn’t sure if he should trust her. His wife, Athena Vazquez, has trained their children to despise this new woman in their father’s life.
The people in this story are Anna (Jena Malone) and Ben (Liam Aiken). She’s just getting started with her personal life. He’s in the pre-school grades, and he’s concerned that his mother will abandon him because of the new woman (“Mommy, if you want me to despise her, I will”). Isabel really likes Luke and would like on a daily basis to love the children. But every time she arrives late for a school pick-up, Jackie appears like an avenging angel with biting remarks. One day while walking through Central Park with the children, Isabell catches sight of Ben who has wandered off. Jackie is issuing ultimatums by the time he’s found: “That woman is not to have any contact with my children.” That’s Act 1. Act 2 follows Isabel’s success in gaining the children’s trust and Jackie’s learning to let go as she loosens her emotional walls. (Spoiler alert:) The Sarandon character doesn’t live much longer than Winger or Streep, who played Meryl Streep in “One True Thing” and Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment,” respectively. When her doctor gives her bad news, she understands that Isabel will one day must care for her children and that she’d better plan ahead. The Kleenex portion of Act 3 is when the characters’ emotions overwhelm them, culminating in separate goodbyes between mother and each child. The film’s biggest flaw is its abrupt transitions between first, second, and third before landing at home. The five screenwriters who created the film were responsible for only a portion of its narrative, and while Gigi Levangie and Ron Bass undoubtedly improved the dialogue’s sophistication, they are people whose lives are caught in the powerful grip of plotting. The actors’ talent to invest their characters with minute characteristics of humanity is helpful in distracting us from the emotional subterfuge, but it feels like they’re brightening different rooms within a haunted mansion.
The movie is almost entirely about Sarandon’s character. Harris isn’t in the film for the majority of the second half, when he appears for a family photo. She can create characters of extraordinary conviction (Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking”). She must be unreasonable for half the film and brave for the rest; there’s no time when she may simply be this woman. Every scene has a goal; we’re reminded of how essential those pillow moments are, especially those like Yasujiro Ozu’s where directors take a beat to allow us to glimpse their characters just being.
“Stepmom” has a good sense of tact. It urges us to cry, but it does not threaten us with sentimental terrorism, like “Patch Adams,” and force us to feel its emotions. Roberts and Sarandon are likeable personalities, and Harris here appears compassionate and reasonable in a thankless job. If they’d been able on their own away from the story, we would have liked to spend time with them.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Story by: Gigi Levangie
Starring: Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris, Jena Malone
Release date: December 25, 1998 (United States)
Running time: 125 minutes
Country: United States