For all the star power of its lead actors, the good-natured friendliness of its concept and some finely nuanced details about the trauma of fractured-family life in the '90s, "Stepmom," at its core, is a movie with a message or two to deliver.
Here goes: Stepmoms, you see, are people, too. Why can't we all just get along? And, oh yeah, there's nothing like a little disease to take care of bad blood and help make the family unit whole again.
This serious, big-budget weeper, director Chris Columbus's graduation from such frothy fare as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Home Alone," wants to go a little deeper than all that, of course. But the movie's patronizing smugness, an often ham-handed script credited to five different screenwriters and at least one major performance that's not quite in sync, seem to hamper all the good intentions.
The basic story is sound enough: Isabel (Julia Roberts, in freshly scrubbed all-American mode), a wildly successful New York fashion photographer, wants to live happily ever after with her new live-in boyfriend Jake, a high-powered, workaholic attorney and father of two played by Ed Harris. The trouble is, tortured 12-year-old daughter Anna (Jena Malone) and her mischievous seven-year-old-brother Ben (Liam Aiken) vastly prefer their own mom, Jackie (Susan Sarandon) to the new gal in town.
Roberts and Sarandon, unfortunately, for much of the movie are burdened with lines that don't allow much room for emotional subtleties. Isabel is the good sport who feels unfairly attacked. Jackie is the wounded woman who walks righteously and wields a mean insult. "You are so self-indulgent you couldn't be a mother," the latter spits during one of several nasty arguments. Sarandon, at least, should have known better.
There are telling moments that on occasion hint at the movie that "Stepmom" might have been: Anna asks her mom if it might be best to hate Jackie, and Malone allows us to see the kind of hurt felt by any child whose loyalties are tested in such a manner. Ben asks his father, "Can you ever fall out of love with your kids?" Malone, Aiken and Harris, by the way, are far more watchable than the film's stars.
Other moments, though, ring entirely false. Does Columbus really believe that a sing-along with an old soul classic (in this case, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Marvin Gaye's duet with Tammi Terrell) makes good shorthand for bonding? Blame that effect on "The Big Chill."
And what is the purpose, other than forcing viewers to wallow in grief, of having Anna and Ben, one by one, exchange what amount to long goodbyes with their dying mother? It's reminiscent of the weakest scenes of "Terms of Endearment."
There is a consolation prize at the end, though, as dad, the kids and both moms hug for a bittersweet Christmas photo on the couch. All will be OK in the world, and just in time for the holidays, right?