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STEPMOM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken
Director:  Chris Columbus
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Theatrical Trailers, Featurette, Cast & Crew Info
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date:  April 27, 1999

Film ***

By the time I finished Stepmom, I was convinced I was seeing an entirely different movie than the one I had started watching two hours earlier.  And I mean that as a good thing.  It started out looking like predictable TV movie of the week fare, with the necessary comic barbs and dramatic moments, but it slowly evolved into something much more than that.  It went beyond real.  It became honest.

At first, it's a story about one relationship that has ended, and another beginning, and the liaison that holds them all together: the kids.  Isabel (Roberts) is a young, attractive woman in love with the older Luke (Harris), and because of this finds herself in a position she was totally unprepared for...motherhood.  Luke's kids (Malone and Aiken) carry all the emotional baggage of children with divorced parents, and that consistently delicate balance doesn't make her new role any easier.  Then throw in their real mother, Jackie (Sarandon), who's very experienced with the kids and seems to do everything right, and the situation becomes a real pressure cooker.

These are all good people, but they are in an uncomfortable situation together, and sometimes, it's easier to hurl barbs and hurtful insults at one another than it is for one to emotionally deal with his or her piece of the problem.

But gradually, it becomes a movie about moments.  We are discovering this just as the characters are beginning to discover that's what life is really about.  The little incidents that make up our experiences as human beings, whether they are funny, or happy, or tender, or sad, or even angry.  The film has many such moments, and as the picture progresses, they are becoming more and more precious—to them, and to us.  I don't want to go into details and spoil anything, but if you have faith and follow this celluloid journey, I believe you'll come to the same conclusions I did.

I will say, what a terrific cast for a movie, headed by three wonderful actors with a closet full of Oscar nominations between them.  Susan Sarandon is a national treasure, and this should be remembered amongst her many fine film performances.  And Julia Roberts shines in a dramatic role that should serve to remind everyone that she is an actress, not just a movie star.  Ed Harris has a slightly smaller role, but if anyone has proven in recent years just how much can really be done with lesser amounts of screentime, it's him.  The chemistry between all three is very strong and very winning.

But I want to make special mention of the two young stars, Jena Malone (of Contact fame) and Liam Aiken.  I have to admit, sometimes I cringe a little bit when I know I'm going to be watching a movie with child stars, because to me, there aren't many things less enjoyable than watching kids on screen who either overact, or think they're too cute, or come across as not really into what's happening on the film.  I was delighted by these talented youngsters, who were bright, honest, and always in tune.  They hold their own with some pretty big talent, and bring as much to the scenes as do their elders.

Video **1/2

Recently, some of Columbia Tri Star's DVD's have been a little hit and miss, which is disappointing considering they were once defining the standard of disc quality.  This one is more hit and less miss, with a mostly very good anamorphic transfer.  Throughout most of the film, the colors are good, and images are sharp, crisp and well detailed.  There are a few instances, however, where the image seems slightly faded or washed out, and a couple of brief scenes where the colors would actually fade slightly, and then return...not really distracting, but a noticeable pattern. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is mostly quiet, but watch out for those Motown numbers--a couple of them come off surprisingly strong, with good dynamics and bottom end!

Features **

The disc contains two trailers, a publicity featurette, and some cast and crew bios.

Summary:

Stepmom is a movie that may lull you into thinking that it's about dull, ordinary, real life, but will gradually make you realize that if you find real life so uninteresting, you're not living it to its fullest.  It's about embracing what is different, even a little scary, and learning to appreciate it, and finding those wonderful, joyful moments inherent therein.