Chris Columbus kind of has his own genre of entertainment going on. It's usually family friendly, it's backed up with crisp and ironed production values and John Williams is usually along for the ride. This isn't necessarily a criticism of Columbus, I mean I love me some Home Alone. His work is just extremely accessible and that doesn't always make for the most interesting films. His two Harry Potter entries are probably two of the least interesting entries out of the whole series.
Anyway, I'm probably just being a bit snobbish right now. Columbus makes family movies that address family problems and that's just fine. Stepmom is clearly part of that and it does honestly have an interesting premise. The conflict that emerges between a mother and a stepmother is definitely relevant in a divorce society like ours.
Jackie Harrison (Susan Sarandon) is the divorcee of Luke Harrison (Ed Harris) and they also have two kids between them. Anna (Jena Malone) and Ben (Liam Aiken) are dealing with the divorce as you'd expect; not very well. Luke has a new girlfriend living with him named Isabel Kelly (Julia Roberts) who also happens to be younger and quite career oriented. The two women are at odds most of the time and the kids begin to take a disliking to Isabel which just complicates things further.
Stepmom is basically a two part movie. The first half of the movie is basically a series of events that end up in the clashing of Jackie and Isabel. This is mostly where I have an issue with Stepmom. I pretty much always disagree with Jackie in all these situations. She just plays the stereotypical, poisonous divorced mom who feeds her kids garbage which then compromises the relationship they have with their potential stepmother as well as their father. I'm not sure if the writers were trying to make this so one-sided but it really feels like it.
The second half of the movie is all tearjerker.
Jackie ends up getting cancer and she tries to hide it from her family. In one last dumb confrontation between her and Isabel, the truth comes out. We're made to feel bad for Jackie despite perhaps what we felt about her before and the engagement announcement between Luke and Isabel just artificially piles it on. Because of the bad setup, the second half lacks any real impact. The arguments that were so one-sided and overblown should have been more distributed and probably could've used more subtlety.
I definitely do like the second half of the movie better than the first half. The premise still holds up and the actors get good opportunities to ply their dramatic skills. Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris are all good dramatic actors and they clearly show that off. Jena Malone plays a difficult early teenager and does so pretty well. I have to say though that Liam Aiken's character Ben is really, really irritating. That laugh will haunt me.
Stepmom is a Chris Columbus movie through and through. It covers a lot of family drama and it does so with high production values and John Williams does do pretty good work with the music. It's never too overbearing which would've been the danger with a movie like this. The first half like I said is what I especially have a problem with in Stepmom. It feels artificially manufactured and it's way too one-sided. By the time the tearjerking commences, it's too late to really feel anything about anyone.