Yoke Home Alone director Chris Columbus with something called Stepmom and you'd expect a formula comedy film, in which a cute kid fends off an evil stepmom with hilarious consequences. But hilarious this isn't.
Stepmom is an out-and-out weepie, designed to showcase the talents of Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts as Oscar hopefuls. The Academy will be hard-pushed to choose between them. Will they go for the noble Sarandon, bravely giving up her children and suffering the physical pain of cancer? Or will they plump for the youthful Roberts, whose performance here is staggeringly better than anything you could have believed her capable of?
For my money, it's Roberts, but only by a whisker. As the fashion photographer she's incredibly moving, throwing her life into turmoil to cope with instant kids and forced to find common ground with a woman who she'd otherwise barely exchange words with. Yet in acting terms, it's Sarandon who gets the showy role, although mercifully we're spared the withering on-screen death. Either way, both woman are easy to root for and believe in. Less so is Ed Harris as the man in their lives: in an underwritten role, he comes across as unsympathetic, and is frankly steamrollered into obscurity by the company he keeps.
Of course, not everybody finds it easy to stomach this kind of heart-tugging drama, and there are times when the emotion is piled on too thick. Luckily, however, there are some lighter moments - - like a very funny Thanksgiving pageant in the middle - which break up the tension. But it's a hardened soul who can bear the last 10 minutes without reaching for the Kleenex.