Saturday 18 April 2020

Movie Review: Stepmom (1998)

A family drama, Stepmom barely rises above rudimentary levels, wasting a stellar cast on a listless and unfocused script.

New York City fashion photographer Isabel Kelly (Julia Roberts) is the new live-in lover of attorney Luke Harrison (Ed Harris), but struggles to connect with his two children, 12 year old Anna (Jena Malone) and the younger Ben. The kids are still attached to their mother Jackie (Susan Sarandon), a former book editor who can barely contain her disdain and resentment towards the younger Isabel.

Luke attempts to maintain the peace, but Anna is not interested in evolving a relationship with Isabel, and Jackie uses every opportunity to disrespect her husband's new lover. But Luke is determined to marry Isabel, while Jackie receives health news that will alter her life.

Stretching for an interminable 125 minutes and with a schmaltzy John Williams music score over-amplifying the sentimentality at every opportunity, Stepmom steps into a pile of television-level drivel despite movie superstar talent. Christopher Columbus sleepwalks through directing duties as a wayward script steers in every wrong direction, five different writers adding layers of clutter.

The film cannot sustain cohesive focus, starting with a title that refer to no character since Isabel is not even married to Luke. The story initially settles on her struggle to gain the kids' respect, but that idea is abandoned with Julia Roberts effectively sidelined as suddenly a disease enters the picture. Stepmom becomes all about the original mom endlessly prolonging aversion towards her replacement while a death-in-slow-motion narrative extends forever.

Roberts and Sarandon cannot help but rise way above the material, and together they maintain a basic level of watchability despite the wash-dry cycle of cliches their characters suffer through. In an early role Jena Malone is also much better than the film as a woman-in-the-making caught in an emotional purgatory between mother and stepmom-to-be. Her scenes exploring the evolving dynamic with Roberts are among the few bright spots, and Stepmom would have been much stronger investing in that fertile territory.

Instead the film goes for cheap tears and creates a moist mess.

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