Directed by Chris Columbus
Cast: Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken, Ed Harris,
1998 124 minutes
Rated: (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 27, 1998.
"Stepmom," directed by Chris Columbus (1990's "Home Alone" and 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire"), is an earnest and well-made film with, perhaps, one unfair flaw: It is very similar to the recent, and far superior, "One True Thing," starring Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger. "One True Thing" was a more serious and seemingly accurate portrayal of a family coping with cancer, while "Stepmom" is a more sleek and "mainstream" motion picture. That is not to say it still isn't a marginally good film, however.
The film begins as Isabel (Julia Roberts), a young woman looking to be in her late 20's, is rushing around her house trying to get two children, 12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and 7-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken), off to school without much success. Before long, an older woman, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), shows up, and we learn that she is the children's actual mother, while Isabel lives with the children's father, Luke (Ed Harris), much to the spitefulness of Ben, and especially Anna. It is clear that Isabel is trying very hard to help take care of the children, but still has a lot to learn about parenting, and isn't helped very much by the uncooperation of the kids and Jackie, who obviously isn't too fond of Isabel, a woman whom she informs Luke, "is half his age." Meanwhile, as Isabel is trying to become friends with the children, Jackie learns that she has lymphatic cancer, and when all of her treatments fail to work, she decides that she has a lot of things to settle before she dies.
"Stepmom" follows a fairly predictable line throughout its 124-minute running time, but is helped immeasurably by the beautifully-done and touching performances from, particularly, Sarandon, Roberts, and Malone, a talented young actress who could very well be the next Jodie Foster (and, sure enough, she did play Foster as a child in 1997's "Contact"). The performers are so good, in fact, that they easily rise above the admittedly thin material and help make scene after scene their own. Sarandon, like always, is realistic and heartbreaking as a woman who realizes she has a lot of things she needs to do before the illness takes over her life; and Roberts gives one of her best performances to date, and smoothly is able to convey her character's frustration of becoming a second-rate parent who will never be able to equal up to the children's real mother.
Through the performances and screenplay, we often do get some extremely well-written and intelligent scenes. Particular sequences that stand out include a subtle, but observant scene where Isabel helps Anna with an art project; Isabel gives Anna advice about some boy troubles that she is having; a moving scene between Jackie and Luke at a restaurant; and a concluding scene set during Christmas between Jackie and her children. In the individual moments of accuracy and truthfulness, "Stepmom" is a suberb and nicely-drawn drama, but, unfortunately, there are a couple noticable problems.
For one, Isabel might be too ideal of a girlfriend and substitute parent. Scene after scene, we are shown how hard and diligently Isabel is working to care for Anna and Ben, but we are not really given a reason why this is. We are supposed to believe it is because Isabel truly loves Luke, but he is often out of the picture for long stretches of time, so much so that I found it hard to accept, later in the film, when one character observes how great of a parent he is. Meanwhile, sitting back watching the picture, I was thinking to myself that if he was such a "great" parent, why was he never watching his kids? The flaws of the Luke character come from that particular weak area in the script, and should not be blamed on Ed Harris, who is nonetheless good in the film, even if he is stuck with a largely underwritten role. Another problem, but to a lesser extent, are some subplots that are brought up but not resolved in any way, such as when Isabel is fired from her job as a photographer.
Even after taking into consideration the film's many missteps, "Stepmom" still remains a worthwhile and honest drama that is able to portray the many dilemmas a family often must go through. While a few moments seemed to strain for melodrama, they were able to look like prime examples of unstrained subtlety compared to a film opening on the same exact day, "Patch Adams," which was shameless in its quest for "heartwarming" (read: superficial) emotions. As said before, "Stepmom" is nowhere near as strong as "One True Thing," but the several top-notch performances and scenes were able to raise it above the level of mediocrity.
©1998 by Dustin Putman