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'Stepmom': Love Springs Maternal

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

Julia Roberts is the "Stepmom" who will be taking over the parenting role for Susan Sarandon. (Columbia)

Chris Columbus
Susan Sarandon;
Julia Roberts;
Ed Harris;
Jena Malone;
Liam Aiken;
Lynn Whitfield;
Darrell Larson;
Mary Louise Wilson;
Jason Maves
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
For mild language
"Stepmom" may be a manipulative, mawkish vanity vehicle, but I must confess to joining a gaggle of critics who gathered in the little girls' room for a good, long, post-screening cry.

Movies about moms dying at Christmas are like that. They're real duct-drainers even when the mother is Susan Sarandon in high diva dudgeon, her fabled, fried-egg eyes aflame with jealousy and rage reflected in the gleaming, piano-key teeth of Julia Roberts, in the title role.

These off-screen gal pals relish the enmity between Sarandon's Jackie, a snappish suburban supermom, and Roberts's Isabel, the ravishing rival who's moved in with her former husband, Luke (Ed Harris). The dazzling younger woman, a famous fashion photographer, is to mothering what Mrs. Doubtfire was to feminine deodorant. She knows from nothing.

When Luke's 12-year-old daughter (Jena Malone) and 7-year-old-son (Liam Aiken) visit, Isabel treats them with kindness, patience and generosity, but it's never enough for the kids, who snub her, or Jackie, who scolds her for her grievous lack of maternal skills. Even the bribe of a puppy fails to win over the kids, who are following their mother's hostile cues.

Upon learning that she has terminal cancer, Jackie must overcome her animosity toward the glamorous, saintly home-wrecker for the sake of the children. Never mind that Isabel hardly seems mean enough to flirt with another woman's man, much less steal him. And though she pays lip service to her relationship with Luke and her fabulous career, Isabel ignores both in favor of wooing the kids.

"Stepmom," actually the story of Jackie's redemption from envy and spite, raises valid questions about marital meltdown, extended parenting and making peace with all interested parties. It doesn't really answer them honestly, but uses Jackie's impending death as a solution.

Director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone"), an unlikely choice for such melodramatic material, does know how to pluck those heartstrings. And he does so with an even hand. Every character is portrayed sympathetically if not quite realistically.

Part of the problem is the setting: Luke's luxe urban flat, Jackie's faux farmhouse in Nyack and Isabel's improbably elaborate fashion shoots. Even so formidable a foe as cancer seems less intractable, less real against Manhattan chic and snow-blanketed country backdrops.

Although the role of Luke is underwritten, Harris is believably bewildered as a man caught between the woman he loves and the woman who is still his best friend. Malone brings a lovely mix of vulnerability and rage to the role of an adolescent who has yet to recover from her parents' divorce when she learns her mother is dying. The Sarandon and Roberts characters are divine, if a tad unlikely. Still, if emotional catharsis is what you seek, "Stepmom" delivers the goods.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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