Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998)
Category: Sad cancer film. Again with the diseases! I don’t think we’ve done cancer yet, though, which is kind of amazing when you consider how many movies have been made on the subject: Love Story, Brian’s Song, Wit, One True Thing, Life as a House, Terms of Endearment, and Sweet November to name a bunch. Plus that show The Big C, which is not about what I thought it was about.
I would also classify Stepmom as a sad "film for women," in much the same way as the Lifetime channel is "television for women." (A slogan which sure didn't stop me from appreciating Taraji P. Henson's brilliant performance in Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story.) I've tackled a similar genre with Steel Magnolias (and also Beaches, I suppose), but in this sense I'm talking more about the target audience of the film than the characters. And I don't think it's too offensive or sexist to assume that the target audience here is women. You've got known women Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in the lead roles, with known stud Ed Harris providing eye candy. And the film is about emotions and feelings and, I’d imagine, the phrase “you stole my man.” You know, the types of things they teach you in women's studies classes. (Please note: I have never taken a women's studies class, but I imagine them to be quite similar to your stereotypical middle school slumber party.) (Please further note: I do not consider myself to be a "sexist.") In short, there's not a lot for the fellas here. Here are all of the possible reasons why a man would willingly see Stepmom:
1. He heard there’s a Susan Sarandon-Julia Roberts lesbian scene. (First of all, ew, and second of all, I am nearly certain that there is no such scene in the film.)
2. He writes this blog.
My familiarity with this issue: Devotees will recall that I wasn't that into Steel Magnolias. But I remain interested in these types of movies (I did like Beaches, after all), especially because I don’t like conforming to gender stereotypes. By this point you’re all aware of my feminine side: my love of Taylor Swift, my shapely legs, my fear of spiders, etc. But let it be known that I still like movies about cars and fighting and things that explode with very little provocation. Moreover, I can check “extensive sports knowledge,” “love of a good bro-out,” and “extremely messy room” off the man checklist. Pigeonhole me at your peril.
It’s important to note that all that buffoonery in the previous section is all jokes, and everything I’ve said about men seeing Stepmom is pure conjecture. I don’t have access to the kind of data that the marketing folks at the movie studios do. But I do think the idea was to create a movie that would appeal to women. It feels like the marketing of movies and the making of movies is pretty much one and the same these days; the studios create movies that are intended to appeal to certain valuable demographic groups, and do whatever they can to feature the things that these groups stereotypically like. That’s how you get the Transformers films, because all 12-year-old boys love things that transform into other things. Stepmom is perhaps less egregious an example of this as Transformers, but it’s no less effective: the movie made $159 million, for crying out loud. (Side note: Stepmom was released on the same day as, and finished second in the box office to Patch Adams on Christmas of 1998. How depressed were we in 1998 that those were the two big holiday films! Good Lord!)
Also, I have never had cancer. Breaking Bad is awesome, though.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: "Anna and Ben, the two children of Jackie and Luke, have to cope with the fact that their parents divorced and that there is a new woman in their father's life: Isabel, a successful photographer. She does her best to treat the kids in a way that makes them still feel at home when being with their dad, but also loves her work and does not plan to give it up. But Jackie, a full-time mother, regards Isabel's efforts as offensively insufficient. She can't understand that work can be important to her as well as the kids. The conflict between them is deepened by the sudden diagnose of cancer, which might may be deadly for Jackie. They all have to learn a little in order to grow together."
What I thought of the movie: Ughhh. It was just so goddamn annoying. And the worst part was that it could have been a good movie! If the characters were at all likeable or relatable, and the dialogue wasn’t almost entirely atrocious, and every single action in the film didn’t feel entirely preordained in a really manipulative way, I probably would have liked it. But those things were very much not the case. (I’d say SPOILER ALERT, but I’ve already said it’s about cancer. And didn’t you just see what I said about everything feeling preordained? Pay attention.)
So Julia Roberts is this young hip flighty fashion photographer who hooks up with Ed Harris (probably at some young hip flighty fashion party), and thus inherits his two AWFUL kids. (I’ll expand on this later.) And Susan Sarandon is the ex-wife whose job it is for the first half of the movie or so to yell and look angry and be a b. (At one point, talking about Julia Roberts, the little boy says to her, “if you want me to hate her, I will,” and SHE DOESN’T SAY NO. She just like smiles at him! WHAT.) Also Ed Harris plays one of those lawyers who pops up once every like half hour in movies because he’s so busy with his cases, and when he does show up his beeper doesn’t stop beeping because the judge is about to make a ruling on this important case he’s been working on for MONTHS and so no, he CAN’T turn it off right now, actually. And that's all the characters in the film! Each and every one of them a terrible, terrible person.
The movie builds up this reservoir of hatred (between Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, and between me and everyone in it) until the scene where we find out that Sarandon has cancer. So now the movie has to make Sarandon and Roberts to finally establish a grudging respect for each other, knowing that Roberts is going to be the mother of the kids after Sarandon kicks it. A not-impossible task, but a difficult one given that the characters basically have to change completely from being what the movie has forced down our throats thus far. But this doesn’t happen right away, and this weird middle part, where we know she has cancer but she still SUCKS, that’s just awful. Julia Roberts has the idea to take the girl to a Pearl Jam concert on a school night, and Sarandon says no way, it’s a school night, are you crazy, AND THEN STEALS THE IDEA! Two scenes later, she’s like "hey let's go see Pearl Jam! PS screw you, Julia Roberts." But at this point we know about the cancer, and in case that scene made us forget that we’re supposed to be nice to people who have cancer, even if they are evil, the VERY NEXT SCENE is set at the doctor’s office. It’s SO SHAMELESS.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I feel that I am generally a nice, likeable person, and that I generally surround myself with nice, likeable people. And so I could not relate to this movie.
I really want to discuss the kids, though. I like kids, but I hate kids in movies. With few exceptions, child actors are really, really weird. The boys have dumb haircuts, the girls are prima donnas, and the fact that you know that they didn’t really choose to get into show business makes everyone uncomfortable. It’s not a good situation. The two kids in Stepmom (played by Jena Malone and Liam Aiken) are maybe the two worst, most annoying kids I have ever seen in a movie. I cannot tell you the number of times I wrote horrible, horrible things about Jena Malone’s character while taking notes during the movie (almost as many times as I wrote “OOOOO, CATTY!”). Julia Roberts gets the kids a dog at the beginning of the movie (trying to buy their love), and the girl goes, “I’m allergic to dogs.” Fine. BUT THEN THE DOG IS THERE FOR THE REST OF THE MOVIE, and the allergic thing isn’t mentioned again. Did she lie? Did she get shots or something? WHAT THE HELL. And then when Susan Sarandon tells the family that she has cancer, the girl flips out because Sarandon had known for a while and didn’t tell her right away. Look, I understand that 12-year-old girls are terrible, and so maybe this characterization is realistic. But it’s not good when you want to reach into a movie and strangle a young child.
The boy is one of those mischievous kids who runs away all the time and is interested in magic, as seen in this photo. Don’t you just want to punch him in the face. I mean, seriously. Look at that dumb haircut and those dumb freckles and that dumb grin. Jesus Christ. And everything he says during the movie is supposed to be cute and it's just vomit-inducing. Awful. And I love kids! They can be so cool! This afternoon I went to a basketball game, and the young kid behind me was chanting “DEE-FENSE,” but he was too young to get the concept of the “DEE-FENSE” chant, and so he did it when both teams were on defense. It was ADORABLE. So don’t try to tell me that I’m mean because I don’t like the kids (whose #1 hobby is HORSEBACK RIDING, by the way) in this movie. You would hate them too, I promise.
How I felt after the movie ended: I would have felt used if I had all cared about anything that was going on before the rug got yanked out, so to speak. It’s just frustrating that it had to suck that much. It’s really a good idea for a movie. It’s a fairly common, relatable situation, and it could have really shown how people deal with tragedy in their lives; how sometimes when shit gets real you have to put aside all the petty nastiness of your everyday life and become bigger than you thought possible. I would have loved to see a movie that really explored those themes. Instead it’s just another movie designed to make us cry, cheaply. Put it this way: the night I watched Stepmom, I also watched Sammi and JWOWW finally put aside their differences and reconcile on Jersey Shore. Guess which one made me more emotional.