*Originally published on the Movie City USA blog on June 5, 2008.
STEPMOM (1998; Dir.: Chris Columbus)
By Daniel Barnes
At the end of Chris Columbus’ mummified would-be tearjerker Stepmom, there is a credit that reads, “In Loving Memory of Irene Columbus”. It’s a reference to the director’s mother, who had died only one year earlier. This lets the viewer know that the phony, maudlin tripe they just rolled their eyes through has an emotional connection to the filmmaker, that Stepmom is the sort of deeply personal tripe that can only told by five credited writers and eleven producers. Exploiting your own mother’s death to just wring one last tear out of the Christmas 1998 moviegoing audience might seem like an all-time low, even for the man who could go on to direct Bicentennial Man, but that’s what you get from a feel-good cynic like Columbus.
Stepmom did alright at the box office, pulling in about $90 million, but the story is so enervated it barely qualifies as a film; it feels more like a package deal put together by a talent agency. Julia Roberts is a “hip” photographer who has recently moved in with corporate lawyer Ed Harris. He has two kids from his previous marriage to Susan Sarandon’s imperious upstate Earth mother, a bratty teenage girl (Jena Malone) and a mop-topped little boy obsessed with magic. The relationships are all pretty firmly established even before the film starts, so there’s nothing to do but to listen to Roberts’ and Sarandon’s voices out-quaver each other (Stepmom features some of the most laughable fake crying in film history) and wait for Sarandon to get cancer. Sarandon is diagnosed with cancer less than halfway through Stepmom, which leaves the viewer in the morally awkward position of rooting for a mother of two to croak, if only because it would end the movie.
Taking their cue from Sarandon’s vindictive character, both of the kids despise Roberts and her relationship with Harris, and the semi-literate script forces them to recite some truly vile dialogue. Trust me when I say that the dialogue in Stepmom goes far beyond the boundaries of mere incompetence and offensiveness into some genuinely ugly territory. I could post a litany of jaw-droppers straight from the script, but instead I’ll just refer you to the Stepmom “Memorable Quotes” page on IMDB. Two of my personal favorites: when the precocious little boy tells Sarandon, “Mommy, if you want me to hate her…I will”, and when the teenage girl screams, “Mommy’s dead! Isabel’s your mommy know!” at her little brother when Sarandon reveals she has cancer. It’s really disturbing to hear such young children speak such vile, unctuous words; I would rather my child star in a Hostel film than force them to recite this swill. If you’re going to make children say such terrible things, you should at least back it up with a movie about divorce and death that is serious, sincere, and penetrating; in other words, the type of movie Chris Columbus wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Instead, Sarandon just contracts one of those glamorous movie cancers, the kind where you become more incandescent and wise as you slowly slip into a symptom-less offscreen death (the movie ends not with Sarandon’s death, but with Roberts and Sarandon posing for a Christmas card together – suddenly, the freeze-frame ending of Thelma & Louise seems daring). Roberts and Sarandon snipe at and undermine each other for the first two-thirds of Stepmom, then spend the final third misting up (the glycerine budget alone must have been staggering) and whispering Oprah-lite affirmations. We’re supposed to find their feistiness charming, but mostly the two actresses just aggressively spew spunk at each other. The viewer of Stepmom is similarly left feeling as though they were covered in spunk as well, humiliated and degraded by the lifeless performances (Ed Harris is mostly MIA, and his reliability can’t even save the show; he holds the glassy stare and frozen grin of a hostage), the aforementioned napkin sketch of a script, John Williams’ goopy score, and Columbus’ pathetic inability to either shape a scene or inject any of his own personality into the film.
Someday, I would like to do a complete analysis of the role of karaoke in the contemporary women’s picture. Has there been a single rom-com in the last decade in which karaoke was not the catalyst for emotional breakthroughs and bonds? Can you think of any movie featuring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner, or Brittany Murphy that didn’t involve some pointless caterwauling over pop songs? I should point out that I am not talking about actual musicals per se (e.g., Hairspray, Chicago, etc.), but rather romantic comedies and other female-skewing genres that appropriate karaoke out of context in order to stimulate the 1980’s nostalgia receptors in the brain, as well as stand in for any emotional bonds and breakthroughs that would have to be earned by competent acting, writing, and directing. It would seem that My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which karaoke was the proving ground for Cameron Diaz’s would-be bride, launched the movement. However, Stepmom was also at the vanguard, proving that no family tragedy, personal bias, or cancerous growth is so terrible that it can’t be instantaneously wiped away by lipsynching “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a comb.
Allowing the karaoke virus to spread throughout rom-coms is no great loss to me – the genre has been dead to me for decades – but I hate to see it infect even a claws-out weeper like this one. It makes me think that if they remade Mildred Pierce, instead of being torn apart by their love for the same man, Joan Crawford and Teresa Wright would just hash out their differences over a hair-flipping, pajama-clad rendition of The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”. I don’t have anything else to say about Stepmom, but I would like to add that Sarandon and her young son “go on dates” in their dreams, and plan on hooking up again after her death. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the artistic motivations of the filmmakers for that one.
Before I close up this review, I can’t resist posting one last example of the truly vile dialogue/borderline child abuse that permeates Stepmom. This exchange is between Ed Harris and his young son.
Ben Harrison (Harris): Can you fall out of love with your kids?
Luke: No. That is impossible!
Ben Harrison: Like Mission: Impossible!