Stepmom (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Stepmom is the kind of bad movie that can be blamed on just about everyone involved except, perhaps, the actors. There's nothing wrong with any of the performances, although they're wasted in the service of inferior material. The script is a mishmash of clich├ęs, inferior melodrama, and howlingly embarrassing dialogue, and the director, Chris Columbus, shows no evidence that he understands the meaning of the term "subtle." This is the kind of tearjerker that will cause audience members to cry, but only because they paid hard-earned money to see it.

Admittedly, the premise - Dad's new girlfriend trying to bond with his hostile kids - doesn't sound promising, but there is room to work for screenwriters willing to take a few chances. However, instead of taking those chances to come up with something genuinely affecting, the small army of authors (five are credited) chose instead to develop a story that is disjointed, overly-sentimental, and boring. I question why would anyone want to see this movie when there are almost certainly a half-dozen better films unspooling in the same multiplex.

Stepmom has a pretty good cast. Given the right project and a director who cares about getting the best out of her, Julia Roberts can be a fine actress. Susan Sarandon has won a much-deserved Oscar. And Ed Harris is always likable and reliable, whether he's appearing in a modern epic like Apollo 13 or an excruciatingly dumb comedy like Milk Money. But even the best performers in the world couldn't do much with this material. In fact, if the actors weren't well-respected, I wouldn't have felt so embarrassed for them as they recited lines that no one should be forced to speak.

Story wise, things aren't all that complicated. Luke (Ed Harris) is a successful businessman whose frequent travel contributed to the disintegration of his first marriage. Isabel (Julia Roberts) is his new, much younger girlfriend, and she has recently moved in with him. His ex-wife, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), doesn't like Isabel, and the two children she shares with Luke, Anna (Jena Malone, who played the young Jodie Foster character in Contact) and Ben (Liam Aiken), have adopted her position. No matter how hard Isabel tries, she can't alleviate the friction. Even bribes don't work. The situation could seemingly go on like this indefinitely, but two events shatter the status quo: Luke asks Isabel to marry him and Jackie learns that she has potentially-fatal cancer. Suddenly, the pressure's on for everyone to learn to get along.

In the past, director Chris Columbus has displayed an aptitude for light fare. After all, he was at the helm for two of the highest-grossing comedies of all time, Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. But, when it comes to drama, he is (and always has been) out of his depth. His direction is heavy-handed, and relies largely upon crass, overt manipulation. A blinking neon sign in the background reading "CRY!!" would have been more likely to provoke an emotional response than Columbus' methods.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, the dialogue is atrocious. Most movies have a few bad lines sprinkled throughout, but, in Stepmom, every bit of speech falls into one of three categories: (1) the kinds of things people would never say in real life, (2) the kinds of things people always say in movies, or (3) both. For example, when Jackie announces that she has cancer, one character's instant, sensitive reaction is to ask "Are you dying?" Another, in full wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth mode, moans, "It should have been me instead of you." We've never heard that one before, right?

Stepmom is meant to be heartwarming, but gut-wrenching is a better description. Can't someone tell a story like this without resorting to the old standby of one character catching a terminal disease? Some will doubtlessly complain that, since I'm a male, I don't "get" this kind of woman's movie. Such an unfounded comment is really the last line of defense for anyone desperate to excuse a pathetic attempt at drama. Next to Stepmom, Terms of Endearment (another movie that pulls out the dying-of-cancer plot device) looks reserved. So, unless you're addicted to bad movies, have a crush on Roberts, Sarandon, or Harris, or want to compound your holiday indigestion, give Stepmom a wide berth.

Stepmom (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1