USA/Germany 1998

Reviewed by Andy Richards


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Divorced lawyer Luke Harrison lives in a Manhattan apartment with his girlfriend, Isabel Kelly. Isabel has a successful career as a fashion photographer, but is inexperienced at looking after Luke's two children, 12-year-old Anna and seven-year-old Ben, when they come round to stay. Their mother, Jackie Harrison, is scornful of the younger woman's attempts to mother her children, who are resentful of Isabel, and long for their father and mother to reconcile. Isabel takes them to one of her photo shoots in Central Park, but they become bored, and Ben gets lost. He is soon recovered, but Jackie is furious with Isabel, and threatens to get a court order preventing her from seeing Anna and Ben again.

After hospital tests, Jackie is told that she has cancer. She secretly embarks on a course of chemotherapy. Luke tells Jackie that he and Isabel are getting married. The children are upset by this news, but Isabel gradually begins to win their affection. As the side-effects of her treatment take hold, Jackie is increasingly forced to rely on Isabel's help with the children, and eventually reveals her illness to Isabel and her family.

Isabel is told that her quality of work is slipping because of the distraction of the children. She resigns. Isabel offers Anna advice on her love life, and their friendship develops. Jackie asks Isabel to take some photos of her and the children together. Jackie is told that the chemotherapy has failed. She opts to spend her remaining time at home with her children, making her peace with Isabel for their sake. On Christmas morning, Jackie says a formal goodbye to Anna and Ben. She invites Isabel into the family photo, and clasps her hand.


Chris Columbus has made films that evinced a certain cynicism about the workings of conventional families. Both Home Alone (in which Macaulay Culkin's Kevin pointed out that "families suck") and Mrs. Doubtfire were energetic, irreverent farces, intrigued by forms of domestic dysfunction. Columbus went on to direct Nine Months and to produce the Schwarzenegger vehicle Jingle All the Way, both of which offered up disturbingly conservative visions of parenthood, the former preoccupied with a regressive conception of 'naturalness' and the latter with a deadening materialism and a fantasist's view of fatherhood. Stepmom may switch the emphasis from fathers to mothers, and downplays Columbus' penchant for slapstick sitcom in favour of a more restrained form of melodrama, but the vision follows this deepening conservative trend.

The fulcrum of the drama here is the gradual replacement of Susan Sarandon's idealised career-mother Jackie with Julia Roberts' apprentice mother (and successful young professional) Isabel. The dynamic between the two actresses is the film's strong suit, the tension of the deposed older woman facing off against her younger rival managing to generate sparks whatever the risible excesses of the script. Consequently, Ed Harris' Luke is almost wholly marginalised (significantly, Isabel is the first person Jackie tells she has cancer, not Luke). Sarandon is characteristically effective, but there is something disconcerting about the conception of Jackie. The script tries to strip her of her sexuality, allowing her to respond to Isabel's patronising observation that she is "mother earth incarnate" with nothing more than a stoical smile (the film would be unable to countenance Jackie having a new lover of her own). Following her cancer diagnosis, Sarandon plays Jackie with something of the hard-won grace that served her so well as Sister Helen Prejean in Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. Here, however, it shades uncomfortably close to smug self-righteousness, a willed saintliness that will entail her children always idolising her above Isabel. The reconciliation of the two women, we are reminded, is forced by circumstance rather than actively desired.

Isabel, for her part, is not permitted to sustain a viable alternative to Jackie's earthiness. She is alarmingly eager to jettison her successful, creative career (as Jackie once did) for the children; within the film's terms, career and motherhood are incompatible roles, with creativity diverted into domestic craftwork (Stepmom, like Nine Months, constructs 'motherhood' with reverential awe). There is no mention of a nanny, let alone any discussion of Luke giving up his career, and no mention of Isabel's desire for any children of her own with Luke. Ultimately, Stepmom remains too glossy, contrived and schematic to sustain the interest; its pat, melodramatic pronouncements endeavour simply to reconstitute its divided family without interrogating its essential structures. But if the film leaves us little the wiser about the issues facing real step-parents, it at least manages to resolve the thorny ethics of whether or not to take a 12-year-old girl to a Pearl Jam concert on a school night.


Wendy Finerman
Chris Columbus
Mark Radcliffe
Michael Barnathan
Gigi Levangie
Jessie Nelson
Steven Rogers
Karen Leigh Hopkins
Ron Bass
Gigi Levangie
Director of Photography
Donald M. McAlpine
Neil Travis
Production Designer
Stuart Wurtzel
John Williams
©Global Entertainment Productions GmbH & Co. Film KG
Production Companies
Columbia Pictures presents a Wendy Finerman production
A 1492 production
Executive Producers
Patrick McCormick
Ron Bass
Margaret French Isaacs
Julia Roberts
Susan Sarandon
Pliny Porter
Associate Producer
Paula DuPré Pesmen
Production Co-ordinator
Kate Kelly
Unit Production Manager
Lenny Vullo
Location Manager
Joseph E. Iberti
Assistant Directors
Geoff Hansen
Stephen Lee Davis
Kenneth G. Brown
Script Supervisor
Eva Z. Cabrera
Ellen Lewis
Marcia De Bonis
The Reel Team
Camera Operators
Anastas Michos
Alec Hirschfeld
Visual Effects
Rhythm & Hues Studios
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Theresa Ellis
Special Effects
Todd R. Wolfeil
Robert J. Scupp
Art Director
Raymond Kluga
Set Decorator
George De Titta Jr
Costume Designer
Joseph G. Aulisi
Wardrobe Supervisors
Michael Adkins
Kendall Errair
Key Make-up Artist
Michael Bigger
Key Hair Stylist
Patricia Grande
Nina Saxon
Cinema Research Corporation
Guitar Solos
Christopher Parkening
John Neufeld
Supervising Music Editor
Ken Wannberg
Music Editor
Katherine Quittner
Music Scoring Mixer
Shawn Murphy
"Under Pressure" by David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, Brian May, Roger Taylor, performed by Queen & David Bowie; "Il signor Bruschino" by Gioacchino Rossini, performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Ricardo Chailly; "Delicious" by Janice Marie Johnson, Perry Kibble, Pete Lorimer, Richard Vission, Mike Bradford, performed by Pure Sugar; "Rhythm of the Road" by Bill Nershi, performed by String Cheese Incident; "When the Lights Go Out" by Mike Percy, Tim Lever, Eliot Kennedy, Sean Conlon, Jason Brown, Richard Dobson, Richard Breen, Scott Robinson, John McLaughlin, performed by 5ive; "Green Onions" by Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewis Steinberg, Al Jackson Jr, performed by Booker T. & the M.G.s; "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Valerie Simpson, Nickolas Ashford, performed by Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell; "If I Needed You" by Townes Van Zandt; "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie; "Baby Love" by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland Jr, performed by The Supremes
Sound Mixer
Tod Maitland
Re-recording Mixers
Gary Summers
Randy Thom
Ronald G. Roumas
Supervising Sound Editor
Robert Shoup
Dialogue Editors
Michael Silvers
Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
Sara Bolder
Sound Effects Editors
Christopher Scarabosio
Susan Sanford
Hugh Waddell
Dennie Thorpe
Jana Vance
Tony Eckert
Sandina Bailo-Lape
Medical Technical Adviser
Alan Sickles
Stunt Co-ordinator
Phil Nelson
Animal Actors Inc
Animal Trainers
Steve McAuliff
Carol McAuliff
Julia Roberts
Isabel Kelly
Susan Sarandon
Jackie Harrison
Ed Harris
Luke Harrison
Jena Malone
Anna Harrison
Liam Aiken
Ben Harrison
Lynn Whitfield
Doctor Sweikert
Darrell Larson
Duncan Samuels
Mary Louise Wilson
school counsellor
Andre Blake
Russel Harper
photo assistant
Jack Eagle
craft service man
Lu Celania Sierra
Lauma Zemzare
Holly Schenck
Michelle Stone
Annett Esser
Monique Rodrique
photo shoot models
Sal Mistretta
Rex Hays
Alice Liu
Chuck Montgomery
ad executives
Mak Gilchrist
Dylan Michaels
David Zayas
Jose Ramon Rosario
Lee Shepherd
desk sergeant
George Masters
maître d'
Anthony Grasso
Robert F. Alvarado
soccer coach
Sebastian Rand
Michelle Hurst

Jason Maves
Brad Kovitsky
Julie Lancaster
flight attendant
Charlie Christman
Stone Fox
Amina Asep
Naama Katz
Jennifer Best
Robin Fusco
Jessica M. Oslas
Electra Telesford
Michelle L. Brady
Anna's friends
Zachary M. Hasak
Jordan Gochros
Rob London
James Ostrofsky
Chad Lavinio
Brad's friends
John Sadowski
Matthew Doudounis
Ben's friends
Andrea Dolloff
cocktail waitress
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
11,243 feet
124 minutes 55 seconds
Dolby digital/SDDS
Colour by
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011