Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.0 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated PG-13, 125 min., $24.95, street date 4/27/99.
Directed by Chris Columbus. starring Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken, Lynn Whitfield.
Jackie and Isabel have nothing in common--one is the ideal mother, the other is struggling to be any kind of mother-until circumstances force them to share a family and put aside their mutual hostility for the sake of their two children. They discover how precious life, love and the ties that bind really are in Stepmom--a movie about real life with all the laughs and tears of real families.
Chris Columbus, director of Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone, brings audiences a compelling new film starring Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris about the joys and challenges of family life in the '90s. Roberts portrays Isabel, a career-minded fashion photographer forced into a role as unwelcome stepmother to her boyfriend Luke's (Ed Harris) two children-12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and seven-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken). It is the universal dilemma of the 'non-traditional' family--both Isabel and the children love Luke, but the two parties don't even like--much less love--each other. When Jackie (Susan Sarandon)--the 'natural' mother and peerless supermom who not only resents Isabel's intrusion on a number of levels but is fiercely devoted to her kids-enters the mix, the often comical, always complex interplay between parents, stepparents, stepchildren, spouses-to-be, ex-spouses and significant others gets even trickier.
Stepmom is also about two strong, independent women and apparent polar opposites who must find a way to connect. When Jackie discovers she is terminally ill and Isabel's relationship with Luke becomes serious, both women realize they must put aside their differences to save a family. The questions don't have easy answers: How do you hold a family together when the person who has been the rock, the most solid center of that unit one could imagine, gets sick? Can another person take her place?
Eventually the two women find more than common ground, they discover how to celebrate life to the fullest ... while they have the chance.
Proof that writer/director Chris Columbus wants to take out the lifelong pain he must have endured because of his name: Stepmom, yet another in his seemingly endless series of mawkish, sentimental films.
The story of Stepmom is not one without potential. It shows a family of two children whose parents have divorced and the father is now seriously dating another woman. This could have been a movie that looked at that all-too-common situation with some insight and daring.
But then it wouldn't be a Chris Columbus film, would it? After all, he's made his name with lousy comedies like Home Alone and lousy comedic-dramas like Bicentennial Man. Even Mrs. Doubtfire, easily his best film, suffers from many of the same faults. Columbus talks down to his audience and makes situations as cute and cuddly as possible; his work defines the phrase "saccharine sweet."
One of the worst parts of Stepmom is that the filmmakers felt they had to add extra emotion by giving the mother - not the stepmother, mind you - a terminal disease. That's what takes the movie from the realm of sorta melodramatic to the level of super-pathos. This is perhaps Columbus' most emotionally manipulative film, and that's saying something.
Columbus seems perfectly willing to force the moods and opinions of his characters to meet whatever emotion he wants to depict. These people display absolutely no consistency and they alter thoughts and feelings at the drop of the hat. It's like he has some sort of "A-B-A-B" pattern he has to follow: happy scene, sad/angry scene, happy scene, sad/angry scene. It doesn't matter that many of these segments don't seem logical; they fit his emotional Zeitgeist, so that's the way they go!
One especially obvious way to do this is to really overwhelm the viewer with the score, and that's exactly what happens here. Music seems nearly nonstop and it boasts the subtlety of a freight train. If the broad emotiveness of the actors doesn't make you cry on its own, then we'll get you with the gloppy music!
(Ironically, music provided the only highlight of this film for me. Although used in annoying and superficial ways, the wonderful version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell appears a couple of times. There's more genuine feeling in that song than in all of Columbus' films combined. He should have used the sugary Diana Ross rendition instead; it fits this movie much more appropriately.)
To be frank, Stepmom is a perfectly competently made film. I like the main cast - Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Ed Harris - but their charms aren't enough to make this thing work. The acting is solid but undistinguished, and the pacing seems adequate. As I mentioned, it lacks much coherent logic, but it does progress reasonably well and it's not overly dull. Still, the whole thing appears so overwrought and bathetic that I quickly tired of it; I made it to the ludicrously weepy conclusion, but just barely.
One scary note: Liam Aiken, the boy who portrays Ben, the young son, offers a spooky resemblance to Italian annoyance Roberto Benigni. That's not a compliment; this kid's awfully obnoxious as well. Oh, and in a "Where have I seen her before?" note, Jena Malone, the actress who plays the other child, appeared as the younger version of Jodie Foster in Contact. (Hey, who needs IMDB when you've got me?)
Stepmom appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen image was viewed for this article.
Since Stepmom runs for 125 minutes, and the DVD also includes an additional minutes of supplements, that's a lot of material per side. While one side of a DVD will hold nearly 140 minutes of video, most distributors don't push them that hard because image quality tends to suffer. In some ways, DVDs are similar to videotapes in that the more real estate the data covers, the better the quality; as such, the more bytes available for a DVD, the better it should look.
Despite the fact that each side of Stepmom is packed to the gills, the picture generally looks pretty decent. Sharpness is usually good, though some softness creeps into the image periodically. Moire effects are more frequent nuisances, though they're not a big distraction. The print used seems clean and fresh, with no signs of dirt, marks, scratches, or speckles; some slight graininess appears, but I think that's a result of some mild digital artifacting.
Colors generally appear accurate and solid without bleeding. At times hues look a bit faded, but not often. Black levels also seem decent, though shadow detail frequently seemed somewhat weak. This latter problem is inconsistent but occurs regularly during the film; mid to low light scenes often seem flat and hazy. In general, Stepmom looks pretty good, but I'd guess that it would have looked fantastic if Columbia Tristar (CTS) left out the fullframe version in an effort to optimize the image of the letterboxed picture.
What exactly does Chris Columbus have against subwoofers? Mrs. Doubtfire was a rare 5.0 mix, and so is Stepmom! Weird!
Anyway, despite the lack of the LFE channel, Stepmom presents a generally satisfactory audio experience. The front channels dominate the action; rears are reserved for music - which is bolstered by this arrangement - and very occasional effects. The forward soundstage is decent, with some good stereo effects and panning at times. Still, this isn't an effects-heavy film; it's dialogue-driven, so the mix - which balances the speech heavily with music - seems appropriate for the movie.
Dialogue sounds clear and intelligible, though it lacks a lot of warmth and occasionally seems slightly edgy. The nearly-ubiquitous music appears quite good, with some nice depth and a very clean high end. What effects we hear also seem accurate and realistic. Stepmom doesn't offer a great soundtrack, but the one it features seems perfectly adequate for the task at hand.
Since not much space remains on each side of the disc, this DVD only includes a few short extras. We see a featurette that lasts for about five minutes and 20 seconds. It's a glorified trailer; while it's mildly interesting, it's such an overt piece of promotion that it offers little of interest. Speaking of which, trailers for both Stepmom and My Best Friend's Wedding appear, as do the typically weak CTS biographies for the three main actors and Columbus. Finally, the booklet includes some superficial but interesting production notes.
Ultimately, Stepmom offers little. It's a very artificially sentimental film that seeks only to manipulate the audience in any way possible. The DVD looks and sounds pretty good, but it lacks substantial supplements. Stepmom is a DVD to skip.
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