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STEPMOM

by: Scott Renshaw

About forty minutes into STEPMOM, I came to a numbing realization... well, two actually. The first was that I knew exactly where this domestic drama was headed and could predict scenes and confrontations far down the road. The second was that I knew we were still 90 minutes away from the closing credits. As the film ever-so-slowly unfolded, I began to realize what five credited screenwriters can buy you: perhaps the most inefficient screenplay of the year.

There's some promising human drama in the premise, which begins with conflict in an extended family. Photographer Isabel Kelly (Julia Roberts), living with divorced attorney Luke Harrison (Ed Harris), is struggling to gain the acceptance of Luke's daughter Anna (Jena Malone) and son Ben (Liam Aiken). Making the task even harder is Luke's ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon), who undercuts Isabel at every turn and rails at her every parenting miscue. What Isabel doesn't know is that Jackie is battling an even tougher adversary than a potential stepmother for her children: cancer. As she confronts her mortality, Jackie also confronts her fears of being replaced in her children's hearts.

That's an interesting enough twist on the complicated emotions and allegiances of extended family interactions, one that could have made a tidy feature weeper. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing about STEPMOM could be called tidy. If a situation or relationship calls for a scene to establish it, STEPMOM provides two or three. Isabel bonds with Anna over an art project (one of the film's few truly affecting moments), then bonds with her over a musical number; everyone panics over Ben when he disappears in a park, then panics over Ben when he falls off a jungle gym. STEPMOM appears to have no faith that we'll understand the significance of a character's actions unless those actions are underlined, making it both insulting and redundant. Every turn of character is so deliberately structured, you might suspect that every subsequent screenwriter came in just to add another half dozen scenes, and no one threw anything out.

STEPMOM's narrative unwieldiness also makes it extremely hard to connect with any of the many plot lines. Isabel struggles with balancing career and her new family, Jackie struggles with balancing her health and her family, Anna struggles with how she should respond to the new woman in her father's life, and Ben (played by Liam Aiken with the kind of fulsome adorableness that gives child actors a bad name) struggles to find new things to giggle at. Ed Harris, meanwhile, struggles just to find a few minutes of screen time. With all the complexities involved in these family dynamics, dear old dad remains a complete enigma. "You're a great dad," Jackie tells Luke in once scene; "I just never gave you the chance to realize it." That sentiment will probably apply to the entire audience, which may forget there's a father anywhere to be found. For a film about getting your priorities straight, STEPMOM sure doesn't.

Of course, it's understood that this is to be a showcase for the two lead actresses, and we shouldn't begrudge them a showcase when lead actresses generally get the treatment Harris gets here. Roberts and Sarandon are both quite good in their roles, Sarandon in particular bringing a wonderful steely maternalism. They're just stuck in the kind of film which has become director Chris Columbus' specialty: cheap comic relief which gives way to Big Messages of understanding. STEPMOM is a big emotional mess of a movie, one which grows increasingly irritating as karaoke production numbers and one tearful goodbye after another chew up minutes of screen time. Good actors deserve better than a script that -- strangely enough -- looks like pieces of the work of five different writers stitched together to form a movie.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 over-extended families: 4.

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