Volume 92, Issue 55

Wednesday, January 6, 1999



Sarandon and Roberts in step

Think before you speak: Some people didn't in '98

Sarandon and Roberts in step

Photo by Demmie Todd
NO NO NO. LOOK OFF INTO THE DISTANCE MORE VAGUELY. Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon take some tough direction but deliver superbly in their new film, Stepmom.

By Christina Vardanis

Gazette Staff

When a movie garners itself the reputation of a "chick-flick," it usually means one of two feats were accomplished. Either the female viewer leaves a broken sobbing mess or dreaming of the boyfriend she just dragged to the show hoping he will realize his sensitive side and just want to talk about his feelings.

The weakness of the genre usually comes in the relentless pursuit of these emotions by the director and writers. Just when the spectator is hovering at the brink of a hypersensitive breakdown, a manipulative scene saturated with sap manages to kick them right over the edge. This technique does little for the movie except to give the viewer an opportunity to doubt the plot's reality and consequently, disengage emotionally.

This is where the strength of Chris Columbus' latest film, Stepmom, becomes evident. Instead of playing on the fragility of its viewers, it appeals to their strengths and love for life. It deals with tragedy as a strategic situation, not plagued by emotion, but encouraged by it.

Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise) and Ed Harris (Apollo 13) star as Jackie and Luke Harrison, divorced parents jointly raising their two children, Anna and Ben. Harris is the corporate executive dad who balances a business lifestyle while making time for his cherished kids. Jackie is your run-of-the-mill supermom, armed with Post-it notes and nutritious brown bag lunches.

Things get sticky when Luke's younger girlfriend Isabel, played by Julia Roberts (My Best Friend's Wedding) moves in and starts sharing child-care duties.

Isabel, a high-profile advertising photographer, isn't exactly a natural at child psychology. The situation is amplified when Jackie and the kids use Isabel as a scapegoat for the failed marriage.

Despite Isabel's efforts, the kids prefer to ignore her existence as long as their ever devoted mother is at their beck and call. However, when Jackie falls victim to a terminal illness, a major restructuring of their lives begins.

The acting in this film is nothing short of phenomenal, due in part to its subtlety. There are no scenes of uncontrollable weeping or last goodbyes. Instead, the dialogues which pull at the heartstrings are ones which allude to the future and the sacrifices needed to conquer it.

Sarandon's performance as the flawless mother forced to finally ask for help is strikingly real. As opposed to teary eyes and a cracking voice, she approaches her resignation with the same stubborn pride she relies on to rebuild her life after the divorce.

Isabel's transformation from '90s career woman to '90s mother is successful thanks to the same determination which made her a force to be reckoned with in the business world. Roberts and Sarandon don't surrender to a stereotypically female role.

Sarandon doesn't suddenly realize the need for female companionship and Roberts doesn't abruptly feel her womb throbbing. Both see the need to re-adjust their lives to help the people they love and do so by building on and redirecting the characteristics which have already made them successful.

The story is incredibly complex and manages to effectively focus on the numerous relationships involved. No character's plight is given more significance than another's, therefore drawing attention to the entire process of achieving family unity and inner peace.

Don't get the wrong idea, this movie will definitely squeeze out some tears. However, the reaction is an honest response to the situations presented and not situations specifically geared towards manipulating the viewer to feel certain emotions.

Strength, rather than sap is the bonding force in this film and it proves to be much more gripping.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999