January 10, 1999 -- "Stepmom" is a soap opera that works because of some strong performances and despite the fact that the kids are just too cute for words.
The strong performances come from Julia Roberts, Ed Harris and Susan Sarandon. The story has Luke and Isabel (Harris and Roberts) getting together after Luke and Jackie (Sarandon) have broken up. Isabel wants to be more involved with the kids, but has conflicts with Jackie, who has custody of the two kids, Anna (Jena Malone of "Contact") and Liam Aiken ("The Object of My Affection").
Jackie, a so-called "Earth Mother" who gave up a career in publishing for the kids, doesn't like Isabel, because she still has her career and the kids don't come first. Isabel tries hard, but she can't live up to Jackie's standards. Then, of course, Jackie gets cancer and that changes everything.
The running battle between Jackie and Isabel is like a war. Surprisingly, Roberts, who is not as well known for her acting talent, actually out duels the formidable Sarandon in this head-to-head duel. She shows she is more than just a pretty face. Harris, who is in the running for an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in "The Truman Show," is outstanding here as the father caught in the middle of the war.
Aside from the essentially sappy nature of the story (a much better look at a similar story is "Kramer Vs. Kramer"), Sarandon doesn't really look sick. The kids are just way too cute and spoiled, the women are beautiful, the men are handsome and everyone is incredibly rich and successful (Jackie and the kids live in a house roughly the size of the Pentagon). Who can relate to these people, or feel sorry for them?
Despite these problems, which are really minor, the film did move me, a fact which I attribute to the fine actors in the lead roles. The terrific scenes between Roberts and Sarandon and the tender understanding of Harris (who has a very fine proposal scene), along with those great Motown songs on the soundtrack, more than make up for the film's weaknesses. It rates a B.
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