Reviewed by: Artie Megibben
Chris Columbus' new movie, “Stepmom” opened to holiday audiences on Christmas day. The film represents a pet topic for director Columbus and is dedicated to the memory of Irene Columbus [his mother who died of cancer in 1997]. Since his very successful “Mrs. Doubtfire”, Columbus has had his finger on the pulse of an increasing “blended” America.
The movie tells the story of a recently divorced Dad played by Ed Harris (“Apollo 13”, “The Right Stuff”) and his two emotionally conflicted kids who have to split their time between Dad’s sleek Manhattan loft and Mom’s (Played Susan Sarandon, “Dead Man Walking”) picturesque, suburban home.
The plot revolves around the entrance of a live-in girlfriend that threatens to supplant the mother. Played by the radiant Julia Roberts (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), Dad’s new lover, a successful fashion photographer, battles to win the affection of her boyfriend’s children while juggling her trendy career. The jilted Sarandon takes every opportunity to undermine her husband’s new flame. “I’ll hate her if you want me to Mom,” declares her eight-year-old son.
Although we sympathize with the children’s unhappiness, it is Roberts' character the Stepmom to whom our heart is meant to go out. Afterall, she’s no homewrecker, she’s really trying, and she knows all the words to the Motown classics.
One of the women contracts cancer and the remainder of the movie feels like a warmed-over version of last year’s vastly superior “One True Thing”. See, director Columbus is saying, a spare Mom can come in really handy.
The movie has its share of schoolyard profanity and embarrassing references to sexuality. Parents beware.
The performances are very good, but veteran actor Ed Harris is supremely out-gunned by these two terrific actresses. The movie ends pattly as the wicked StepMom is generously included in the Family Christmas photograph by a much-mellowed Sarandon. Fade to black, cue the Motown music and roll the credits.
Sadly, divorce and blended families rarely have such happily-ever-after endings. God hates divorce, not because he’s an old fuddy duddy, but because He is intimately aware of the pain and hardship that come out of it. Movie makers like Columbus however know that we need hope and forgiveness for our often self-centered decisions. Spinning modern myths like “Stepmom” gives our culture permission to feel it will all work out one day. Divorce isn’t easy, but it does have its upside.
Additionally, “Stepmom” offers a couple of other interesting insights into our culture. There is no moral outcry from the holier-than-thou Mother when the husband exposes her kids to his live-in arrangement with his girlfriend. Indeed, it isn’t until Harris decides to make her an honest woman that Mom flies off the handle. The message: fornication good, marriage bad. How odd! Also, the movie offers us the weak-kneed promise of an afterlife where the best we can hope for is to live forever in our children’s hearts (I suppose it works as long as you redefine the words “live” and “forever.”)
The biggest insight for me was what I got from Susan Sarandon’s character. We find by the end of the movie that she wasn’t nearly as perfect a mother as she claimed to be. In fact, it was only in her smugness she found her strength. Afterall, she was right and her husband was wrong! Afterall, her children’s lives were at stake! She was the reposistory of truth! …Kind of sounds like us Christians, doesn’t she? More Pharisee than Christ.
The real lesson for us in “Stepmom”, is that the church can’t afford to deal with the dysfunctions of this generation by patting ourselves on the back, by waving placards and feeling smug that our families may have the good fortune of being intact. We must concern ourselves instead with the weightier matters of the law… things like mercy, justice and faith. It ain’t about throwing stones folks it’s about reaching out and redeeming lives.
Year of Release—1998