[Screen It]


(1998) (Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon) (PG-13)

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Drama: A mother must deal with her ex-husband's new girlfriend and that woman's status as her kids' potential stepmother.
Professional photographer Isabel Kelly (JULIA ROBERTS) has recently moved in with Luke Harrison (ED HARRIS), her divorced attorney boyfriend. Their relationship seems perfect except for one thing -- his kids, 12-year-old Anna (JENA MALONE) and 7-year-old Ben (LIAM AIKEN), can't stand her.

That's partly because they're obviously still trying to deal with their parents being divorced and having to split time between them, but also because their mom, Jackie (SUSAN SARANDON), openly doesn't like Isabel either and this has rubbed off onto her kids.

After Isabel forgets to pick up Anna and Ben one too many times, and especially after she momentarily "loses" Ben in the park, Jackie blows her top. Despite Isabel's genuine efforts, Jackie threatens to revoke the consensual visitation arrangement she and Luke had arranged and get a judge to allow her to keep the kids for good.

Things change, however, when Luke announces that he' going to marry Isabel, which just so happens to coincide with Jackie learning that her previously undisclosed cancer has returned and spread. As she tries to deal with that, she also comes to realize that it may be time for her and Isabel to reconcile and establish a strong family for the kids before it's too late.

If they're fans of Roberts or Sarandon, or of "Terms of Endearment" type stories, they just might.
For language and thematic elements.
  • JULIA ROBERTS plays a professional photographer who's moved in with Luke and tries very hard to get his kids to like her. Along the way she occasionally uses some strong profanity.
  • SUSAN SARANDON plays a mother who detests her ex-husband's new girlfriend and the way she supposedly (in her mind) doesn't know how to deal with children.
  • ED HARRIS plays the ex-husband caught up in the middle of this domestic squabble and who tries his best to smooth things over.
  • JENA MALONE plays the 12-year-old daughter who despises her potential stepmother and never cuts her any slack until half way through the story when she needs help with boy problems.
  • LIAM AIKEN plays her 7-year-old brother who's a typical elementary school kid still dealing with his parent's divorce.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    A pure example of how sheer star power can lift what could have been a run-of-the-mill drama concerning a post-divorced family into something more, "Stepmom" is a decently constructed dramatic piece that mainly succeeds simply because of what its great cast pours into it.

    What may surprise moviegoers is that it's also a story about a loved one's battle with cancer, something the film's ads so nicely avoid mentioning. With both of those elements (cancer and divorce) running hand in hand, Columbia/TriStar may have a tough sell on their hands once word gets out that this drama is more akin to "Terms of Endearment" and the recent "One True Thing" than the cinematic divorce story standard, "Kramer Vs. Kramer."

    While it never quite manages to claw its way onto a level playing field with any of those three films, this picture is still an "enjoyable" enough diversion -- that is, as long as you classify tearjerker "wannabes" that evoke such emotional melodrama as such.

    Although the film doesn't elicit the gut wrenching, wanna bawl your eyes out reaction that it's obviously and all too apparently trying to evoke, director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire") does plug in enough lump in your throat, tear in your eye moments to please moviegoers who seem to enjoy going through such cinematic "torture."

    Beyond that, the screenplay -- originally written by real-life stepmom Gigi Levangie, but then modified by a host of other screenwriters including Jessie Nelson ("Corinna, Corinna"), Steven Rogers ("Hope Floats"), newcomer Karen Leigh Hopkins, and "Rainman" scribe Ron Bass -- offers few surprises despite all of those fingers that had a hand in it.

    Of course the whole cancer element is a bit of an unnecessary surprise, but it does supply the necessary and convenient catalyst for the characters to suddenly change their beliefs and behavior toward one another.

    However, it's doubtful many moviegoers will have not already guessed that Isabel would slowly take over Jackie's motherly role before that's revealed. Even so, Columbus and his bevy of writers have made sure to introduce more than an ample amount of domestic "bumps" -- along with keeping the standard issue kids as antagonists for at least half the film -- to keep the proceedings halfway interesting.

    As such, the rest of that burden falls onto the shoulders of the cast members and their performances, all of which are quite good. While some may be surprised -- and relieved -- that the filmmakers didn't take Susan Sarandon's cancer-related appearance to the usual cinematic extreme, they won't be shocked by her solid performance. Perfectly playing the jilted divorcee who takes out her anger on her ex-husband's new girlfriend and her inexperience at raising kids, Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking," "Thelma and Louise") is always believable in the role.

    The same mostly holds true for Julia Roberts ("My Best Friend's Wedding," "Pretty Woman"), although her whole photography career -- which is nicely utilized in a later, sentimental scene -- often feels more like a plot contrivance than a "natural" occupation (not that Roberts couldn't be a photographer, it just feels a bit forced).

    Removed from such settings, however, and Roberts does a fine job as the frustrated stepmom-to- be who tries her hardest to figure out how to placate the kids after being catapulted into that position.

    The always reliable Ed Harris ("Apollo 13," "The Firm") is as good as ever, and the biggest complaint about the film (and any other where he's relegated to supporting status) is that he's not given enough screen time.

    Granted, I realize this is the leading ladies' film, but Harris brings such natural dignity to his roles that it's a shame when he's not fully used. Supporting performances from Jena Malone ("Contact") and Liam Aiken ("Henry Fool") as the two kids dealing with divorce are fine as well.

    While the whole cancer bit pushes this picture a bit too far into melodramatic, soap opera-like surroundings (such as having it all occur from Halloween until Christmas -- you know, those family heavy holidays), the great cast does their best to keep things afloat and, for the most part, they succeed.

    Although I'll admit that this sort of film isn't one of my favorite genres -- especially when the manipulation is poured on too thick or when part of the cast dances around the house lip synching to some old song -- the film is easy enough to watch, and the stellar cast and their solid performances make it an okay, but not quite outstanding recommendation. We give "Stepmom" a 6 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the content found in this PG-13 rated film. Profanity is heavy with 1 "f" word, as well as an assortment of others and some colorful phrases. Jackie briefly responds to Anna's question about why Isabel screams during sex, but the short conversation doesn't get any more detailed than that (although some may not like the fact that Luke and Isabel live together -- unmarried -- and do so in front of his kids).

    Several heavy thematic elements run throughout the film, including the obvious divorce related issues and how they affect kids, but there's also the matter of Jackie having cancer. Related to that, and to deal with her chemotherapy, Jackie smokes a joint in one scene.

    Beyond that, and the bad attitudes displayed by Jackie and the kids (especially Anna) toward Isabel, the rest of the film's categories are mostly void of any major objectionable material. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness for anyone in your home, you may wish to take a closer look at the content listings.

  • Isabel pours wine and Luke tells her to leave some for his cooking.
  • Jackie has a cocktail in a restaurant, from which Luke has a drink.
  • To deal with the effects of chemotherapy, Jackie smokes a joint.
  • Isabel has a drink when she meets with Jackie.
  • We see a little bit of blood on Ben's pants leg after he falls and cuts himself.
  • The kids don't like Isabel and don't give her a chance to prove she's an okay person, especially Anna who constantly fights with Isabel.
  • Jackie has both toward Isabel, and even feeds such thoughts into her kids' minds.
  • Some may see Luke having Isabel move in with him (in the presence of the kids who reportedly hear them having sex and walk in on the two of them in the shower) as having some of both.
  • The scenes where Jackie appears sick from her bout with cancer may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • A brief scene where dramatically suspenseful music plays as Isabel and Anna frantically search for Ben who's "missing" may be a tiny bit tense for some viewers.
  • Fake guns: Briefly used in a Thanksgiving school production.
  • Phrases: "Limp d*ck," "Snow blowing," "Wise ass," "Sucks," "Sucky," "Butt kissing weasel," "Fart face," "Jerk," "Frosty the snow bitch," "Scum," "Bastard," "Kick his ass," "Loser," "Schmuck" and "Putz."
  • Isabel finds Ben hiding in a kitchen cabinet.
  • Ben loudly belches for laughs.
  • Isabel gives Anna a long and somewhat derogatory comeback speech to tell a boy at school who's been bugging her. While it allows Anna to stand up for herself, some kids may want to imitate it.
  • None.
  • A tiny bit of suspenseful music occurs.
  • None.
  • At least 1 "f" word, 5 "s" words, 2 slang terms for male genitals ("d*ck"), 5 asses (1 used with "hole"), 3 damns, 3 hells, and 7 uses of "Oh my God," and 1 use each of "For Christ's sakes," "My God," "For God's sakes," "God" and "Dear God" as exclamations.
  • Isabel's boss visibly mouths the "f" word.
  • Isabel jokingly tells her boss, "I'll prove to you why you hired me, even though I wouldn't sleep with you."
  • Isabel and Luke live together, but aren't married.
  • Isabel mentions to Jackie that Anna walked in and saw her and Luke in the shower together. Later, when Jackie asks Anna what she thought that meant, Anna says, "Sex." Anna then asks Jackie, "Why does Isabel scream during sex?" Concerned, Jackie says, "How do you know she screams during sex?" to which Anna replies, "I live in the same country..." The conversation then switches to another subject before that one is finished.
  • Anna complains of a boy at school calling her a virgin (and other associated names such as "Frosty the snow bitch").
  • Isabel tells Anna to make a comment about "snow blowing" to a boy who's been bugging her at school. While it's never explained what that means, Jackie gets very upset upon hearing that her daughter used that phrase, as well as "limp d*ck."
  • None.
  • The movie begins with Jackie and Luke already divorced, with the kids splitting time between them. Anna and Ben aren't happy about this situation, and Anna wishes they'd get back together. They also occasionally question why they split up, and at one point Ben asks Luke, "Can you ever fall out of love with your kids?"
  • Additionally, the kids aren't happy with their dad's new girlfriend, Isabel, and this whole domestic problem runs throughout most of the film.
  • The kids see their already divorced parents arguing about Isabel and her capacity to watch the kids.
  • Anna is upset about Jackie's cancer, but mostly because Jackie didn't tell the children right away (and Anna now thinks she's lying about her status). When Luke then tells Anna not to run out on her mother, Anna says, "No, that's your job."
  • Parents who get divorced, and having to deal with them dating and possibly getting married again (ie. Stepparents).
  • Cancer.
  • Ben accidentally falls and cuts his leg (we see a little bit of blood on his pants leg).
  • Jackie knocks items from a table in anger (over her condition).

  • Reviewed December 9, 1998 / Posted on December 25, 1998

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