With a bland and unrevealing title like Stepmom, you might half expect a horror film about the mad matriarch of a dysfunctional family. That’s not the case here. Rather, Stepmom is another a long tradition of three-hankie weepies, and a rather archetypical one at that. Luckily, this tearjerking comedy-drama compensates for its familiar structure with several superior performances.
Luke and Jackie Harrison (Ed Harris and Susan Sarandon) have been divorced now for two years. They have joint custody of their two children: aspiring magician Ben (Liam Aiken), and the uncontrollably angry Anna (Jena Malone). Luke and Jackie are still on fairly good terms… until Luke’s girlfriend Isabel (Julia Roberts) moves in with him.
Isabel is a career photographer, who has had no experience with kids. She tries, but nothing she does can live up to the perfect example of motherhood, Jackie. Ben and Anna love tormenting her, and Jackie’s shrewish attitude doesn’t make Isabel feel welcome either.
But there’s another piece to this puzzle. Something which will cause everyone involved to reevaluate their feelings and attitudes. But can this non-traditional family bond together in a time of true crisis?
Stepmom shamelessly goes overboard in its attempts to manipulate your emotions. It pulls out every stop, and utilizes every trick in the book to wring that one last tear from your body. It performs these tasks strictly according to the tearjerker textbook. If you’ve seen even one tearjerker before this one, you’ll know exactly where the plot is going.
Still, there is considerable talent involved here. And despite, the blatant manipulation, the excellent performances that permeate the film somehow manage to redeem Stepmom. Both Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts excel in the lead roles. Ed Harris, when he’s not busy being under-utilized, is a joy to watch as well. Even the children are above par for this sort of film., though Liam Aiken was seemingly cast on the basis of his infectious laugh alone.
The film itself is a bit rushed, confining all the action to a few short months. This dramatic shortcut does serve to heighten the emotional shocks of the film (the impacts are all felt sooner than they should be), but at the cost of realism.
After the end of Stepmom, you feel like a finely wrung sponge. The film may be completely by-the-book, but thanks to the performances at its center, its emotional manipulation succeeds. This may be a formulaic tearjerker, but it’s one done well.