MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Julia Roberts (Isabel), Susan Sarandon (Jackie), Ed Harris (Luke), Jena Malone (Anna), Liam Aiken (Ben), Lynn Whitfield (Dr. Sweikert), Darrell Larson (Duncan Samuels), Mary Louise Wilson (School Counselor)
When the writing credit appears on-screen in the opening moments of "Stepmom," it's hard not to notice that there are so many names listed, they almost fill the entire screen. No less than five credited screenwriters took a pen to "Stepmom" (and who knows how many uncredited rewrites and additions), and the result is an overcooked, shapeless story with about ten too many climaxes and not enough narrative development. For more than two hours, "Stepmom" works too hard to get your tear ducts flowing; and, by the end when it really should have some dramatic oomph, you feel too worn out and haggard to be moved emotionally.
The film was directed by Chris Columbus, who handled similar family crisis-oriented material with "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993). Like "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Stepmom" deals with divorce and its repercussions on a family that is trying to stay together. Here, Ed Harris plays Luke, the father of an angry 12-year-old girl, Anna (Jena Malone), and a precocious 6-year-old boy, Ben (Liam Aiken). His ex-wife, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), is, as one character puts its, "Mother Earth incarnate." She's the ultimate "Better Home and Gardens" mother figure, and not just because she lives in a perfectly decorated, extraordinarily beautiful New York Victorian home. She sews, she cooks, and she's punctual when picking up her kids, which is essentially the opposite of Isabel (Julia Roberts), Luke's new live-in love and soon-to-be stepmother of his kids.
Isabel is a youthful, high-price fashion photographer with killer instincts for shooting models, but not for dealing with kids. The opening sequence shows her bungling everything a good mother does well: she can't find where Ben is hiding, she slaps together lousy lunches, and she doesn't wash Anna's purple shirt, even though she knows it's "purple shirt day" at school. Isabel is trying, but she simply doesn't have those motherly instincts that come so naturally to Jackie.
The dramatic dilemma in "Stepmom" is whether both Jackie and Isabel can play mother to Anna and Ben. The kids hate Isabel in the beginning of the film, and much of the narrative flow consists of their gradually coming to like her and vice versa. Of course, this introduces some elements of jealousy on Jackie's part, all of which makes for good drama.
What makes "Stepmom" so frustrating is that, throughout the film, there is constantly the feeling that it should be better than it is. If handled correctly and honestly, the dramatic rivalry between Jackie and Isabel should be enough to drive the film. But, that isn't how the filmmakers see it. The movie insists on throwing a terminal cancer into the works, thus guaranteeing TV movie-of-the-week comparisons. Having one character in a state of death is the straw that breaks this camel's back.
There's nothing wrong with the individual components of the film: Columbus directs the film with slick style and an amazing amount of clarity, considering what a mess the script is. The three principle actors--Sarandon, Roberts, and Harris--all give fine performances. Sarandon does an almost magical balancing act of making her character both sympathetic and often infuriating in her motherly smugness. Roberts strikes a nice tone between her youthful inexperience as a mother figure, and her character's basic decency and desire to learn. Harris should be given some kind of award for appearing in a movie between two actresses like Sarandon and Roberts and still managing to be noticed.
If there's anything fundamentally flawed in "Stepmom," it's the script, which bears all the hallmarks of being rewritten too many times. The script was originally penned by one woman, a stepmom named Gigi Levangie, who had done some work on television shows like "In the Heat of the Night." Both Sarandon and Roberts, who have executive producing credits on the film, didn't like the original script, and it went in for numerous rewrites. By the time all was said and done, another four writers had thrown their own ingredients into the broth, and it ends up tasting like something grossly overseasoned. The feeling you get while watching "Stepmom" is that each writer was trying to one-up the others with his or her own tearjerker climax or important speech scene.
Therefore, "Stepmom" is too much of what you might expect from a high-profile Hollywood Christmas release. Some will find their tears running freely throughout the film, and it should be said that it does have some well-tuned sequences. A few laughs here and there never hurt, and there is a moment or two when we really feel this family's pain as they try to cope with change and heartbreak. Unfortunately, those moments are the exceptions rather than the rule, and, thus, "Stepmom" never fulfills its potential as a true portrait of a family in transition.
©1998 James Kendrick