Stepmom [1998]

Though Stepmom was dismissed as a contender in the 1998 Oscar race, it's worth giving a second chance to this rather cogent, sharp-tongued look at second chances. Susan Sarandon's performance as a mom about to be replaced by her ex-husband's new girlfriend (played by Julia Roberts) has a lot of bite, and it's a shame the script opted to marginalize and trivialize her plight in its final reel. Initially, the rancor that passes between divorced mom Jackie (Sarandon) and trendy fashion photographer Isabel (Roberts) rings true, aided by the sincerity of Jackie's ex-husband Luke (Ed Harris) and the emotional plight of their children, who have the most to lose in their parents' divorce. As the drama makes clear, the kids are the real victims in the agony that ensues between old and new love. Director Chris Columbus, who is adept at showing familial chaos (he directed Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone) with a sanitized minimum of lingering emotional damage, actually manages to dig a trifle deeper than usual in exploring the jealousy and hurt that occur when the baton is passed between a birth mom and the younger wife who steps into her shoes. Stepmom fortunately manages to touch on that chord--showing how an ambitious woman might feel hampered by the responsibility of children just because she's fallen in love with their dad--as well as the haunting grief that it causes their birth mom. It's an issue that haunts millions of second wives everywhere, and while Roberts conveys the confusion of being taken for granted in the melee that follows, it's Sarandon who walks off with the film. She's relentless in her fury, and everyone else in the film--the generally excellent Harris included--is sideswiped. It's just a shame that Hollywood once again wimps out in the end, solving the problem by giving Sarandon a terminal illness. Instead of allowing Jackie and Isabel's relationship to unfold on something less than a high note, the movie has to quell its best thing with a false payoff because it doesn't know what to do with real life. --Paula Nechak

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