Rating -

Comedy/Drama (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

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Part 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.

People 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.

"Patch 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Check 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.

Now 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 the rest.

Now 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.

Oh, 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, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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