The holiday release "Stepmom" is worthy of future study by film-school professors, who can use it as the perfect example of how to milk the drama out of a potentially intense situation with the use of lame one-liners and an upbeat soundtrack.
Those who teach film criticism can show how valuable a thesaurus can be while writing a movie review by having the class look up the synonyms for "mawkish," "clumsy," "trite," "phony" and "artificial." All that remains is to insert those words in a sentence that begins with, "'Stepmom' is the most -----" and ends with, "major movie of recent memory."
Worst of all, this would-be tearjerker wastes the talents of an exceptional cast - all of whom give good performances in the service of a bad script.
"Stepmom" has an interesting and timely premise: How does the much younger girlfriend of a middle-aged businessman bond with his two resentful kids?
Julia Roberts plays Isabel, a fashion photographer who is competing for the affections of the children of her lover, Luke (Ed Harris), with his ex-wife, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), a stay-at-home mom who is described as "the ultimate earth mother."
Jackie resents Isabel and undercuts her every move to make nice with the kids, 13-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and 8-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken).
Unfortunately, the script, which has no less than five screenwriters credited, gives us little to go on about who did what to get the family in this situation, so all of this behavior happens in kind of a moral vacuum where it is impossible to know whose resentments are - or are not - justified.
Between them, however, the writers do manage to throw in every cliche in the book, while avoiding the real problems faced by families in divorce. These darling but spoiled kids and darling but self-involved adults get to work out their problems in picture-postcard settings like an upscale Hudson valley pastoral farm and a chic Manhattan apartment, free of any worries about money. The choice is between supermom and the glamorous career - hardly the every-day choice.
The only way the writing team could think of to get the parties together was by hauling out the "deadly disease" plot twist, which, of course, lead to all kinds of noble suffering and emotional focus.
"Stepmom," which takes no dramatic risks, ends up with no drama. Even a dose of melodrama would be welcome, but this movie is so determined to please everyone of any age that pain always gives way to cuteness, and tough questions are answered by trite platitudes that would make a Hallmark card writer blush.
Chris Columbus, that renowned director of sensitive milestones like "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," makes sure that not one scene is played out to any kind of realistic resolution but does provide lots of pretty pictures.
The cast does stalwart work in selling the phony characters, and manages at times to generate some good will, but this is consistently undercut by howlingly bad dialogue that requires the actors to say things like, "The kids will be OK if we're OK." Sarandon's afterlife speech and Harris' talk on commitment are real lowlights, appalingly presented.
In fact, the technical credits of "Stepmom" - the glossy widescreen cinematography and the fine acting - are so good that someone who did not understand English would be sure something very important was going on.
Those who do, and who are in the mood for something like this, will be breaking traffic laws getting to the video store to rent "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Terms of Endearment."