Super Stepmom

Given the manipulative tendencies of many mainstream pictures, Stepmom easily could have slipped into a sticky morass of sentimentality and melodrama. Instead, it proves a genuinely affecting movie that approaches its adult themes with intelligence, maturity and rare authenticity.

The film stars Susan Sarandon as Jackie, a divorced mother of two, whose ex-husband Luke (Ed Harris) is now romantically involved with Isabel (Julia Roberts), a much younger, career-oriented woman. Still recovering from the breakup of her marriage, Jackie resents Isabel and unconsciously encourages that attitude in her kids, 12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and seven-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken). For her part, Isabel is leery of supermom Jackie, and she exhibits little enthusiasm for her own place as stepmother. But when Jackie is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the two women must put aside their hostility for the sake of the children.

Stepmom poses painful, true-life questions, the kind that hang in the air, suffused with unbearable longing and sadness. "Why do you think this marriage will work and ours didn't?" a wounded Jackie asks Luke when he informs her that he intends to propose to Isabel. Sarandon invests all of her roles with a ferocious understanding and a complex web of emotion. Here, she projects a totally believable mix of wounded pride, heartache, petty jealousies and a determination to make peace with the woman who will guide her children as they grow into adulthood. Sarandon is such an accomplished actress that she never seems to be mouthing lines written by someone else; the viewer feels that even without a script, her character would be saying the same things.

While Roberts may never scale the heights Sarandon so effortlessly achieves in film after film, her performance here cannot be faulted. In fact, it's one of her best to date. But no matter how good she is, she has always been hampered by her blinding star quality, which can prove as much a curse as a blessing for a serious actress.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments for Sarandon and Roberts is the way they convey the differing level of familiarity that exists between Jackie/Luke and Isabel/Luke. Despite the breakup of their marriage, Jackie and Luke know each other in a way that Isabel and Luke, still in the first stages of love, can't possibly. And the sense of naturalness that springs from a shared history over time is depicted with extraordinary realism. Furthermore, the audience completely buys Harris's involvement with both women.

Malone (Contact, Bastard out of Carolina) and Aiken (The Object of My Affection, Henry Fool) round out the stellar cast. Two of the most gifted child actors working today, they prove completely at ease in front of the camera, bringing emotional range to their roles.

Although credited to five writers -- usually a sign of trouble -- the script manages to avoid most of the cliches you might expect to see, given the material. A few incidents feel contrived, however, such as the way in which Isabel first learns of Jackie's illness; and a couple of scenes seem artificial, as when Jackie and her kids go on a moonlit horseback ride. Overall, though, the script has the unequivocal ring of truth, conveying how tough it is to lose someone's love when you are still in love with that person; how painful it is to watch your children form an attachment with their father's new girlfriend; and how, even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult to let go of your kids.

Stepmom marks director Chris Columbus's first foray into drama after a string of comedies, including Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Home Alone (1990), and he acquits himself admirably here regarding structure and pace. Just when Jackie and Isabel seem to be making headway in their relationship, some incident upsets the apple cart. Still, a growing respect develops gradually and believably between the two women, and the writers never take sides.

Many viewers will be brushing away tears by the final reel, but even those who remain dry-eyed will be won over by the powerful performances that bring the film's universal themes to life. Stepmom stands out as one of the year's strongest and best studio offerings.

Rated PG-13.
Directed by Chris Columbus. With Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts and Ed Harris.

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