1998, PG-13, 124 min. Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Liam Aiken, Lynn Whitfield, Jena Malone, Ed Harris, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon.

REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Dec. 25, 1998

Motherhood is a perpetually dangerous place, filled with dread and fear and necessary losses. By their very nature, our children must depend on us, reject us, abandon us. But we cannot, ever, abandon them. And if, for some reason, we must leave them, it is our profound responsibility and unerring instinct to ensure their continued well-being. It's a rich vein, and director Columbus is given all the right machinery with which to mine it. Unfortunately, his shiny product is more silverplate than sterling. Stepmom is the tale of two adversarial mothers, one a birth mother who is as passionate about, and committed to, her maternal toils as any driven career woman, and the other a stepmother-to-be, a successful young photographer who is thrust prematurely into full-blown, reluctant motherhood. The film's characters, a wealthy lawyer (Harris), his gorgeous young girlfriend Isabelle (Roberts), and his stunningly competent ex-wife Jackie (Sarandon) are straight from a layout of Town and Country, all glossy and composed. They live a lush life -- in a Manhattan loft, a Hudson Valley country home -- their lives rich with gorgeous props, perfect lighting, and extravagant detail. But all that cosmetic shine dulls the intense, heartrending humanness of the story. Jackie, for all her russet earth-motherness and exaggerated civility can't help but detest her glamorous successor, and Isabelle's earnest efforts just make her more irritating. The children resent the interloper, especially 12-year-old Anna who turns her considerable adolescent venom and contempt on her vulnerable stepmother at every opportunity. Jackie quietly, deliciously feeds the fire until she is given a diagnosis that forces her to view Isabelle as her children's savior rather than her own competitor. Save for the stars' extraordinary big-screen charisma and an astonishingly effective performance from young Malone as Anna, these characters are too remote, too pretty, and too unrealistic to move us in any lasting way. Short term, however, Stepmom delivers. Saying goodbye, facing the ultimate maternal fear, is trenchant, if familiar, stuff and Stepmom fairly drips with it. While fully recognizing the film's heavy-handed manipulation, it's actually fun to surrender to the gut-wrenching sensations, to fly through the cycle of the seasons and emotions that are so artistically painted on the screen (closing, of course, with the obligatory, heartwarming Christmas scene). Watching Stepmom is like walking past a grand house at night, its curtains open and lights ablaze. We pause, curiously involved in the tableau unfolding within. We can gawk at the decor, marvel at the dresses, get momentarily caught up in the visible actions of the people inside. But because we are so utterly removed from that milieu, our interest flags, our walk resumes, and the moment slips away.

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Stepmom, Chris Columbus, Liam Aiken, Lynn Whitfield, Jena Malone, Ed Harris, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon

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