Reactionary fantasies seem to be a specialty of Julia Roberts, and Stepmom fits right into that groove. Not only does her Isabel Kelly willingly gives up a glamorous career to take care of the kids their father — her boyfriend — seems not to care about, she learns to be happy about it.
Luke Harrison (Ed Harris: The Truman Show) is a hotshot lawyer, tied to his beeper and cell phone. He’s got joint custody of his two kids, Anna and Ben (Jena Malone: Contact, and Liam Aiken), with his ex, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), but it doesn’t matter if he’s never around to see them: his hip and cool girlfriend Isabel is always there. Of course, the kids hate her, but Jackie hates her more: Isabel is — gasp! — a “self-involved” career woman, a self-proclaimed “brilliant” fashion photographer.
And why shouldn’t she be self-involved? Anna and Ben aren’t her kids. She’s not even married to their father. But in all the strife that Isabel brings to the disbanded Harrison family, never is one word said about Luke’s constant absence. When Jackie and Luke argue about the kids’ care, it comes down to Luke accusing Jackie of being upset that their kids are being cared for by “a woman who really has no experience being a mother.” This is where Jackie should be saying, “And where is the man with experience being a father?” She never does.
Because Luke is an absent dad, Isabel has to learn to become Jackie, the selfless mom who knows her kids’ impossibly complex schedules by heart. She becomes Luke’s convenient babysitter, constantly ferrying the kids around to their various kiddie activities, bringing the kids to work with her (not that dear old Dad ever does the same) — and still has Jackie putting her down, referring snidely to “people like Isabel, who think only about themselves.” And yet when Jackie needs someone to pick up the kids when she can’t make it, does she ask Luke? Of course not: she asks Isabel.
Stepmom is two hours of Isabel running off to chauffeur Anna and Ben around. Just when you think you can’t possibly say to yourself “Where’s Dad?” yet again, there’s Isabel once more rearranging her schedule and her life to suit his kids while he goes on his merry way. I cannot emphasize enough how this galled me, this constant hammering home that men’s careers are much more important than women’s (Isabel’s is seriously threatened), that not only should women dedicate their lives selflessly to their own kids (Jackie gave up a career and now receives a sorry reward for that) — while their fathers need not — but women should also devote themselves other people’s kids.
When I bitched to a friend about how much Stepmom annoyed me, how much I hated this concept of the new wife taking more of an interest in her stepkids than their father does, my friend said, “That’s probably how it is.” And that’s true. But there’s nothing to indicate that any of the characters in Stepmom (or any of the people responsible for making the film) think there’s anything wrong with this. How can Stepmom pretend to be a wholesome family drama when Dad is all but out of the picture?
I’m not looking for Mr. Mom here — I’m looking for Mr. Dad. And Stepmom shamefully allows him to exclude himself from his familial responsibilities without consequence or even comment.