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A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Wendy Finerman and 1492 production. Produced by Finerman, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Executive producers, Patrick McCormick, Ron Bass, Margaret French Isaac, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Pliny Porter.

Directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay, Gigi Levangie, Jessie Nelson, Steven Rogers, Karen Leigh Hopkins, Ron Bass, story by Levangie. Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Donald M. McAlpine; editor, Neil Travis; music, John Williams; production designer, Stuart Wurtzel; art director, Raymond Kluga; set decorator, George De Titta Jr.; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; sound (Dolby/ SDDS), Tod Maitland; associate producer, Paula DuPre' Pesmen; assistant director, Geoff Hansen; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Nov. 17, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 124 MIN.
Isabel               Julia Roberts
Jackie               Susan Sarandon
Luke                 Ed Harris
Anna                 Jena Malone
Ben                  Liam Aiken
Dr. Sweikert         Lynn Whitfield
Duncan Samuels       Darrell Larson
School Counselor     Mary Louise Wilson

Tears are jerked with strenuously sincere calculation in "Stepmom," which sees some very talented thesps working over the most mawkish conventions as if they were freshly minted. The combined efforts of five screenwriters ensured that not a single cliche of the modern feel-good tragic melodrama genre has gone unturned, resulting in a soggy heart-tugger that will be last on any guy's Christmas want-see list but will attract, and connect with, more than enough women to make it a solid hit.

All the boomer-friendly elements are here: The warmly upscale Manhattan and Hudson Valley abodes, the ever-perplexing conflict between super-momdom and nifty career, the adorably smart kids tossed about by divorce, the lack of any money problems, the middle-aged dad angst-ridden over having dumped same-aged wife for hot young babe, and a deus ex machina in the form of a fatal disease that triggers some noble suffering and emotional focusing all around.

Every choice in the too-many-cooks script and Chris Columbus' direction is the obvious one. Isabel (Julia Roberts) is a New York fashion photographer dazzling enough to be on the other side of the camera but apparently so fabulously talented that she can dash off her shoots in three minutes flat. Having just moved into the apartment of b.f. Luke Harrison (Ed Harris), she is instantly saddled with his kids one weekend, a prospect that doesn't thrill burgeoning teen Anna (Jena Malone).

Even less thrilled is Luke's ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon), a suburban supermom who finds Luke's new woman impossibly young, self-involved and clueless about kids, while Isabel, not unjustifiably, finds her "imperious." Typical of the film's contrivances is a faux suspense sequence, awash in jittery camerawork and anxious music, in which Isabel loses track of 7-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken) on an outing in Central Park.

Luke has to soothe a lot of feelings and unruffle many feathers on both sides as the contretemps continues; no matter what Isabel does to show herself a capable mom-to-be, it's never enough for Jackie, who would like to pretend she doesn't have a chink in her Mother Earth armor. But 40 minutes in, when Jackie is called into her doctor's office and intones, "It's spread?," it quickly dawns that the movie has a "Terms of Endearment"/"One True Thing" destination in mind, one of cloying sentimentality to be arrived at with clear, if teary, eyes at Christmastime.

The emotional breakthroughs come in stages, of course. Anna, who experiences her first little romance during the course of the action, comes to decide that she can accept Isabel as a cool big sister; Luke proves his worth by proposing to Isabel and winning Jackie's approval as "a great father," and the two women finally bond in a weepy way that will have susceptible members of the audience sniffling and blubbering.

Pic is presented in a way that allows no painful feelings to linger for more than a moment, better that the air should be cleared by bits of greeting card wisdom and characters' often implausible changes of heart. The actors take it all with the utmost gravity, with Sarandon playing "Mother Earth incarnate" to the hilt; Roberts, in essentially a secondary part, trying to let a serious side poke through her breezily photogenic exterior; and Harris lending stalwart support.

Everything about the film suggests that its makers consider it a deep, emotionally probing drama, but it's merely a soap opera with elevated production values and a sterling cast.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 14, 1998
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