It must’ve made the studio suits chortle with delight, the idea of teaming Julia Roberts, the sparkling “It Girl” of the decade, with the regal queen of Serious Cinema, Susan Sarandon. They could probably hear the heavy jangling of gold at the box office even before filming began. But the suits are going to be in for a big surprise: Stepmom, a maudlin overdose of saccharine and clichés, is going to be the season’s biggest dud, once word of mouth gets around.
Actually, the idea isn’t half bad—squaring off the spurned older wife and the fresh young thing. The glimmer of hope that this might be a serious exploration of what happens when a young career woman is faced with an instant family she may never have wanted flickers briefly before being snuffed out by cornball excess, repetitious clichés, and a ruthlessly calculated histrionic climax guaranteed to leave audiences sniveling. The five screenwriters listed in the credits prove the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the soup.
Isabel Kelly (Roberts) is a dynamic fashion photographer who apparently specializes in working double time: All her shoots are completed in under two minutes. She’s just moved in with divorced lawyer Luke Harrison (Ed Harris, sadly wasted here) and must contend with his two resentful children, budding teen Anna (Jena Malone) and young Ben (Liam Aiken, with a smile permanently affixed to his elfin features). Spurring the kids on is the ex, Jackie (Sarandon), who looks down dolefully upon ambitious and clearly soulless Isabel with her smashing outfits, perfectly styled hair, and Land Rover.
Poor Isabel tries, with bribery (a puppy), big-sisterly understanding (over Anna’s boy problems), and genuine protective concern (when Ben has a mishap at the park), only to be met at every turn with rejection from the children and derision from Jackie. Luke stands by in a helpless funk, ineffectually scolding the children and pleading for understanding from Jackie. Clearly when it comes to family, it’s a woman’s world and men have very little to say about things.
The kids may be on to something with their hostility. As you watch Jackie puttering around her palatial home, you have to wonder why anyone would leave Susan Sarandon, even for Julia Roberts. While Jackie displays a flare for righteous bitchiness, she’s nevertheless Saint Mom (which really should have been the film’s title) through and through. Roberts tries to give Isabel some substance, but there’s little for her to do but look alternately fetching and earnest. Whenever it appears she and Sarandon may be getting to a meaty exchange, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) cuts away to another cliché.
The casual (and unbelievable) opulence and nonthreatening atmosphere blend with the thin script to give Stepmom a high ick factor. Other similarly themed holiday flicks, similarly heavy on sisterhood and terminal illness (Terms of Endearment, Roberts’ own Steel Magnolias) redeemed themselves with strong supporting characters to detract from the maudlin elements. What we wouldn’t give to have this tidy fare mussed up with a little cranky eccentricity.