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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Stepmom

Starring: Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon
Director: Chris Columbus
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 124 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken, Lynn Whitfield, Darrell Larson, Mary Louise Wilson

Review by Greg King
4 stars out of 4

Those who believe that Hollywood doesn't create strong roles for female actors anymore should look closely at the new film Stepmom. This emotionally charged drama gives two popular actresses an opportunity to sink their teeth into a pair of strongly drawn, juicy, challenging and interesting female roles that move beyond the normal stereotypes.

Jackie Harrison (Susan Sarandon) is a divorced mother who is still protective and possessive of her two children. When her former husband Luke (the always solid Ed Harris), a workaholic lawyer, settles into a relationship with fashion photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts), she feels resentment and hurt. Isabel is unprepared for the instant demands of temporary motherhood thrust upon her. The unforgiving Jackie is quick to point out her shortcomings, and constantly belittles her efforts in front of the two children. When Jackie is diagnosed with terminal cancer, though, the two women are forced to bury their enmity towards each other and establish a united front for the sake of the children. Out of bitterness slowly grows an unexpected friendship.

It would be too easy to dismiss this manipulative tear jerker as a melodramatic "women's film", but that is both patronising and condescending. Stepmom is a well acted, deftly written, entertaining, and broadly appealing drama that explores some important themes, with a mixture of compassion, insight and humour.

Five writers laboured over this poignant drama about families, divorce, the love and pain of relationships, but it is Oscar winner Ron Bass (Rain Man, Waiting To Exhale, etc) who gives the multi- layered material its warmth and honesty.

Sarandon and Roberts also co-produced the film, and their empathy for the characters and its themes is evident in their sterling performances. Sarandon has the meatier role, one that allows her to run the gamut of emotions, which she does with style. She also says more with inflections and her facial expressions than most actresses say with pages of dialogue. She is excellent, bringing an innate intelligence and compassion to this wonderful role, and her beautifully nuanced performance should ensure she starts front-runner to win a well-deserved second Oscar. Roberts' solid and emotionally rich performance is something of a stretch, and should also come as a revelation to those who have previously dismissed her as a light weight actress of little depth.

As the self-absorbed and resentful Anna, Jena Malone (who played the young Jodie Foster in Contact) captures all the pain, confusion and anger of children caught in the bitter cross fire of a divorce, and delivers a quite mature performance. Liam Aiken (from The Object Of My Affection, etc) is heartbreakingly cute and unaffectedly natural as younger son Ben. In one eloquent scene in which Jackie is sharing some time with her two children, he turns to her and says: "If you really want me to, mum, I'll hate her." Harris is fine and restrained, and brings dignity to his smaller role. Director Christopher Columbus is better known for his slapstick comedies of the juvenile Home Alone variety. But he also brought a sympathetic touch and compassion to films like Nine Months and the hugely successful Mrs Doubtfire. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Stepmom, which is also touchingly dedicated to the memory of his late mother.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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