(US); 1998; Rated PG-13; 124 Minute
Julia Roberts: Isabel
Susan Sarandon: Jackie
Ed Harris: Luke
Jena Malone: Anna
Liam Aiken: Ben
Produced by Michael Barnathan, Ronald Bass, Chris
Columbus, Paul DuPre, Wendy Finerman, Margaret French Isaac,
Patrick McCormick, Pling Porter, Mark Radcliffe, Julia Roberts
and Susan Sarandon; Directed by Chris Columbus; Screenwritten
by Gigi Levangie, Jessie Nelson, Steven Rogers, Karen
Leigh Hopkins, Ronald Bass and Elizabeth Chandler
by DAVID KEYES
of the appeal to a movie like "Stepmom" is the fact that
the material can be effective in the hands of such fine
screen actors. The typical melodramatic 'weepy' is basically
a checklist of events to make sure that the viewer falls
for the material and breaks out the Kleenex, but in order
for it to be taken seriously and literally, it's sentimental
value has to emerge from a heartfelt perspective; in Hollywood's
minds, the 'mouse-trap' setup of these melodramas has to
be hidden behind something so that we can be manipulated
into falling for it.
like to use real events to make stuff like this work, while
others simply follow the basic Hollywood rules and hide
the obvious manipulation steps behind good actors, good
plot twists, good cinematography, etc., basically whatever
is necessary. "Titanic" was obviously manipulative, but
the movie was based on historical events, was well-crafted,
and was well acted. Those three things gave this brainwashing
movie reason to exist and to manipulate.
Adams," another recent 'weepy' like "Stepmom," is a precise
example of how miserably the manipulation can fail and how
obvious it can seem. The movie was like a threat to our
minds; it hoped that we weren't smart enough to know we
were being tricked into the material, and if we did
have half a brain, it pushed us up against a wall, forcing
us to try and jerk some tears and appreciate the movie.
Then again, how can you appreciate an 'excessively happy'
doctor who wears clown noses in the operating room? Take
a good look at him, and consider, for one second, if you'd
like this guy to be your doctor one day. No wonder
Gene Siskel called it the worst movie of 1998.
in some ways, "Stepmom" works. Hiding the obvious material
from us noticing it are the performances by Julia Roberts
and Susan Sarandon, two women who each in their own retrospect
can make any type of material seem good. And they do it
here--that sort of checklist-like structure of this melodrama
seems less conspicuous and noticeable now that we have two
women like this carrying it out. Both of them have been
in their share of sad movies, too. Julia Roberts made us
reach for the handkerchief in her masterwork, "Steel Magnolias."
Susan Sarandon shed light on a convicted death row inmate
in "Dead Man Walking." With both of them sharing the screen
here, you can't help but sidetrack yourself from conquering
the obvious tearjerker situations. Yes, it still seems obvious
and manipulative, but at least they make us accept it and
buy into it.
movie centers around a concealed group of five people, and
that may also be a reason why we fall for it. With a limited
number of characters, we are forced to examine all five
of them closer than we would if the movie dealt with twelve.
This way, we get to appreciate them for what they accomplish
or stand for (even better, Ed Harris disappears for most
of the last part of the movie so we can concentrate more
on just the four). Julia Roberts plays a photographer named
Isabel, who, as the movie opens, is carrying on a relationship
with divorcee Luke (Ed Harris). He, of course, has two children
from an ex-marriage, but that doesn't seem to be the real
problem. Everything would be fine and dandy for Isabel if
the children didn't hate her and their mother didn't despise
her. Jackie (Susan Sarandon), is a picky, lioness of a mother
who develops as the script and Sarandon intend her to; she
doesn't want Isabel to be in her children's lives, and she
makes that perfectly clear, even to Luke, who still sees
her as the perfect mother.
off the first part of your 'weepy' checklist. That would
be the part that raises an internal conflict between the
film's most important characters. In this case, the problem
with Jackie disapproving of Isabel being a temporary mother
to her children.
comes the second part, in which our emotional structures
are deteriorated once we learn that these characters have
some sort of serious conflict erupting in their lives, whether
it be from the past or present. Here is the point in "Stepmom"
when Susan Sarandon finds out that she has cancer, and it's
potentially fatal. Thus, that one problem sets the scene
for the third and final part of our checklist, and that's
where we're expected to break out the tissue, duck our heads
and cry a river. Jackie realizes that, if this cancer takes
her life, Isabel will be the childrens' mother. Does she
really want to have her children grow up with a mother that
is dead and a stepmother that they despise? You can guess
only one question remains. We've seen Roberts and Sarandon
ignite the screen here, but can you still see through the
formula of the tearjerker? Kind of. Some of the over-sentimental
elements in the picture, like the child-mother good-byes,
are obvious and corny enough to distract attention from
the characters we want to pay more close attention to. Sometimes,
neither Roberts nor Sarandon get to be themselves, but the
material intends for that to happen. A tearjerker with that
plot structure is likely to take away any attention from
any character, no matter who is cast in the role.
but the time we have on screen with these two women when
the material doesn't stray to extremes in the last half
is enough to recommend the movie alone. Given past examples
of how Roberts and Sarandon have both made us shed tears,
they are fitting enough to make this movie work. Without
them, or anyone else's enthusiasm for the project, this
would simply be a totally maniacal, overblown tearjerker.
Maybe the filmmakers cast both of these women in "Stepmom"
because they knew they needed some good ambitious actresses
to succeed in hiding the film's clear-cut concept.
1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
Please e-mail the author here
if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.