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Review: No dastardly 'Stepmom,' just Marketing 101

Web posted on:
Tuesday, January 05, 1999 11:09:05 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Man, talk about covering all the bases. Chris Columbus' "Stepmom" -- which was written, in Hollywood tag-team fashion, by Gigi Levangie, Jessie Nelson, Steven Rogers, Karen Leigh, and Ron Bass -- is one of those movies that's so meticulously designed to be a hit, its failure at the box office could well have signaled the end of the free market system as we know it.

Starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon as a couple of women who fight for the hearts and minds of Sarandon's offspring after she divorces her husband, "Stepmom" pushes more buttons than your average space shuttle crew. It's a "hit" in the sense that it's made a lot of money, but not in the sense that it's particularly good; although, by now, most people have given up expecting hit movies to be good.

You gotta cover a broad demographic if you want to compete with all the other Christmas movies, so "Stepmom" can be described in a number of supposedly alluring ways, each of which has been proven in the past to put fannies in the seats ... except, of course, when it doesn't:

Theatrical preview for "Stepmom"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

It's a star vehicle, Part I: For whatever reason, Julia Roberts can't miss. She's very pretty in a goofy, girl-behind-the-counter kind of way, smiles with every bit as much verve as Tom Cruise does, and (like any big movie star) is willing to do basically anything to peddle her movies to everybody on Earth. So that means that millions of people (who've been inundated with posters, fashion spreads, gossip items, print interviews, TV interviews, and high-profile celebrity dating binges) would crawl across broken glass to see her be Julia Roberts in virtually anything. So Julia Roberts is in "Stepmom."

It's a star vehicle, Part II: - Susan Sarandon, by movie industry standards, anyway, is an older woman, but bankably so. She's funny, smart, attractive, and fairly recently won an Oscar. Like Roberts, she promotes the hell out of her projects, and, as a bonus, is something of an outspoken political activist. People who like a little more meat (both physically and mentally) on their movie stars love Susan Sarandon; they can't get enough of her. So Susan Sarandon is in "Stepmom."

It's a romance: Roberts plays a commercial photographer who's living with her boyfriend and his two kids. She's not much in the mothering department, being more concerned with her glamorous career than child-rearing, and she's forever forgetting to do Mom things, like picking up the urchins after school. Roberts and Sarandon hate each other, and the young daughter hates Roberts, too, for good measure. (She's okay, but - sniffle-sniffle - she's not my Mom!)

However, when Roberts and Ed Harris (who plays the ex-husband) are alone together, the John Williams score gets about as gooey as Quaker State 40-weight. This cues them to say cute, smoochy things to each other, just as it cues the audience to expect them to say cute, smoochy things to each other. The contrived way that Harris gives Roberts an engagement ring is ridiculous, so it's almost guaranteed to make half of America go "AWWWWWWWW."

It's a "Women's Film": I've never bought into this concept, but I only believe in Santa Claus. Women's Films, when you get right down to it, are movies that star women rather than men. Maybe it's true that some men won't go see a movie in which the lead character is a woman, but you could just as easily call them Non-Intimidated Men's Movies. Lots of guys will see them with no coercion whatsoever. Regardless, the script endlessly debates (in easy-to-grasp boldface) child-rearing techniques and the intricacies of the mom-child bond, all the while making damn sure that the debaters have sexy, aerobicised chassis. Theoretically speaking, the debate brings in the women, and bone-headed guys come along for the skirts. In "Stepmom," one skirt's older and one skirt's younger, just to be safe.

It's a tearjerker: Sarandon finds out that she's dying of cancer, but she's doing her best not to tell anybody. That way she can have all kinds of moving conversations with her un-knowing children, and she and Roberts can wind up forming an "unexpected" connection that'll benefit little Cindy and Biff (or whatever their names are) long after Mom has drifted off to blockbuster heaven.

I'll give Columbus a lot of credit for not going insane with this idea, but there are still moments when you can practically feel the movie putting its foot against your face for leverage as it yanks at your ducts. People love to cry at movies where honorable women develop terminal illnesses, even one as endlessly cranky as Sarandon's character. So Sarandon develops a terminal illness in "Stepmom."

You also get an aggravating performance from Jenna Malone, who plays the daughter as if pouting were the same thing as breathing. I'm sure it wasn't the goal, but she winds up making a very solid argument for corporal punishment. Everybody learns to love each other by singing Motown tunes together, and, as a living, breathing cherry on top, Roberts gives the kids a cute puppy. I hate to say it, but a TV movie filled with big stars and lots of expensive crane shots is still a TV movie. So why buy a ticket?

"Stepmom" handles Sarandon's cancer fairly sensitively, but everything else is delivered via mallet. Lyn Whitfield, who's an extremely talented actress, is given the thankless role of Sarandon's doctor. It's nice that she got a paycheck, but this woman deserves to star in a challenging film. Rated PG-13, for a little bit of language. 124 minutes. (You'd think, incidentally, that commercial film makers could find a way to suggest warmth without blasting another damn Motown song.)

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