"Stepmom" should set the gold standard for tear-jerkers for months to come. Tasteful, genuine and winningly acted by Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris, this well-paced family melodrama recalls those well-appointed weepers of the 1950s, commonly called "women's pictures."
"Stepmom" may concern itself with the relationship of two women who find an unexpected bond, but it is very much about modern-day American families at their most fractured. And if the image of a happily blended family it offers is pure fantasy, it will touch anyone who has first-hand experience with divorce, adult dating and less-than-perfect parents -- in other words, just about everyone.
Roberts plays Isabel Kelly, a with-it Manhattan photographer who has just moved in with Luke (Ed Harris). Actually, Isabel has moved in with more than just Luke: There are his two kids, Anna and Ben (Jena Malone, Liam Aiken), who stay with the couple on weekends, and Luke's ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon), who lives in the country but hovers as a domineering, invisible presence even when she's dozens of miles away.
"Stepmom" opens as Isabel is adjusting to the two children and they to her. Ben, a winsome imp who keeps hiding and jumping out of cupboards, is a pretty easy sell, the type of kid who gives love in direct proportion to how much he receives. But his 12-year-old sister Anna is having none of it. Elbows out, her freckled face set in a perpetual pout, she bristles with hostility toward Isabel, continually comparing the younger woman to her beautifully earthy mother. And, indeed, Jackie is quite the contemporary maternal paragon, a radiant cross between Martha Stewart, Mother Courage and, well, Susan Sarandon.
Tough competition -- especially for Isabel, whose biological clock seems to be permanently set on the snooze button. Still, she tries to befriend the kids, almost always with disastrous results. She takes them to a photo-shoot in Central Park and manages to lose Ben; her idea to take Anna to a Pearl Jam concert is co-opted by Jackie in yet one more example of her superior mothering.
As conventional as the set-up is, "Stepmom" manages to be surprising, mostly due to the believable way in which Roberts and Sarandon depict their characters and their relationship, which takes interesting stops and turns all the way through the film. And director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire") rarely lets the movie bog down in treacle, even when the emotional economy is rocked by a fatal illness. (The studio deserves kudos for not giving away this crucial plot point in trailers, but film goers may nonetheless want to be warned: Someone dies.)
Much of "Stepmom's" success is due to its three appealing lead players, all of whom lend class and intelligence to the enterprise (Malone and Aiken are just as judicious in doling out the cute stuff). But it also has restraint, a rare commodity in melodrama.
Once "Stepmom" begins to focus on the fatal illness of one of the protagonists, it does so without the fetishistic agony of, say, "One True Thing," in which Meryl Streep withered so bathetically. In "Stepmom" the eyes are kept remarkably clear, which guarantees that the eyes in the audience will be filled to overflowing when the lights come up.
Even when true to the principles of its genre -- rope them in with pretty people, stylish settings and adorable kids; reduce them to puddles with tragedy -- "Stepmom" doesn't get carried away with its own hearts and flowers. Its manipulations may be formulaic, but their execution is refreshingly smart, honest and relevant.
Starring Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris
Directed by Chris Columbus
Rated PG-13 (language and thematic elements)
Running time 124 minutes
Released by Columbia-TriStar
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 12/25/98