"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,
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
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.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman