Given that Hollywood thinks a big-screen version of "McHale's Navy" is a sure-fire idea for a feature film, it's not surprising that when a genuinely shrewd notion--like the one for "Stepmom"--appears, no one knows quite what to do with it.
The idea, a choice concept for a three-hankie weepathon, was writer Gigi Levangie's, and it was strong enough to attract stars Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. Take two women with the best reason to hate each other (the younger one has usurped the older woman's husband) and introduce a better reason to have to try to get along: The older woman has a fatal disease and needs to know her children will be left in good hands.
Given that a full five writers, enough to field a "Stepmom Scribe" basketball team, are listed on the final credits, and that input also came from the two stars, director Christopher Columbus and, for all anyone knows, the craft service guy as well, it's impossible to tell exactly who is responsible for what finally appears on screen.
What is clear, however, is that believing that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and fearful that even one person somewhere in the back of the theater might not be sobbing, "Stepmom" has taken this viable idea and laid the emotion on thick as thieves. It may be unfair to ask a film like this not to be shamelessly manipulative, but wouldn't it be nice if audiences could be trusted to feel things more or less on their own without layers of unnecessary hokum entering the picture?
The five scribes (in addition to Levangie they are Jessie Nelson & Steven Rogers & Karen Leigh Hopkins and Ron Bass) and director Columbus have a run of lachrymose credits that prefigures what's going on here, including "Corinna, Corinna," "Hope Floats," "What Dreams May Come" and "Nine Months." So it's not surprising that every teary situation imaginable is put through its paces and that all sensitive moments are trumpeted by John Williams' insistent score.
Roberts plays Isabel, a top New York photographer (is there any other kind?) who, in the script's delicate words, "has never cared to be domestic." But the love of her life, successful attorney Luke (Ed Harris), has two children from his previous marriage, and being a sometime stepmom to his son and daughter is part of the deal.
These kids, to be fair, are a handful. Cute, but a handful. Young son Ben (Liam Aiken) is a magician-in-training and prone to disappearing at any moment. And older sister Anna (Jena Malone, the young Jodie Foster in "Contact") is so angry at Isabel she can hardly stand it.
Jackie (Sarandon), the aggrieved Mother Courage, is not interested in making things easier for her successful rival. Which means a good part of "Stepmom" involves Isabel messing up in one way or another so that Jackie or the kids can say terrible things about her, ranging from the comparatively benign "Slugs have a faster learning curve" to the more definitive "That woman is going to have nothing more to do with our children."
Stuck in the middle is the unfortunate Luke, and "Stepmom" benefits greatly from having Harris in the role. In acting terms as well as for plot purposes, his is a stabilizing presence, and Harris' performance does as much as anything in grounding the film and at least pointing it toward believability.
Sarandon and Roberts seem to have great fun sparring with each other, and Roberts does an especially appealing job as the striving stepparent. Though Sarandon is one of those actresses who never gives a bad performance, her work here is not among her best, suffering in subtlety and credibility especially if compared with what she's done before.
Ham-fisted though it mostly is, "Stepmom's" script does have a tiny handful of honest moments, like one of the children asking Luke, "Can you ever fall out of love with your kids?" More typical are times like the snowy middle of the night in the rural Hudson River Valley, when mom Jackie is able to come up with a baby-sitter in a New York minute so she and her daughter can share an ever so picturesque midnight horseback ride.
If this is "keeping it real," which the publicity insists was this production's watchword, reality, like most other things, is not what it used to be.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and thematic elements. Times guidelines: A mother gets cancer.
Julia Roberts: Isabel
Susan Sarandon: Jackie
Ed Harris: Luke
Jena Malone: Anna
Liam Aiken: Ben
A Wendy Finerman Productions and 1492 Pictures production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Chris Columbus. Producers Wendy Finerman, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Executive producers Patrick McCormick, Ron Bass, Margaret French Isaac, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Pliny Porter. Story Gigi Levangie. Screenplay Gigi Levangie and Jessie Nelson & Steven Rogers & Karen Leigh Hopkins and Ron Bass. Cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine. Editor Neil Travis. Costumes Joseph G. Aulisi. Music John Williams. Production design Stuart Wurtzel. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.