`Stepmom' Is Sappy -- Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon Can't Save This Tired Tearjerker

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XX "Stepmom," with Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken. Directed by Chris Columbus, from a script by Gigi Levangie, Jessie Nelson, Steven Rogers, Karen Leigh Hopkins and Ron Bass. 124 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, because of language and subject matter.

An overlong holiday treacle-fest shamelessly designed to earn Oscar nominations for its leading actresses, Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, "Stepmom" is so calculated that it just might backfire.

The preview audience with which I saw it applauded at the end, but there were plenty of dry eyes in the house. I heard no purses opening, no Kleenexes emerging from them, and people didn't seem in need of composing themselves while watching all of the end credits. In other words, don't expect this tearjerker to work the way "Titanic" did.

The plot has some promise. Although it's ultimately the story of a middle-aged mother dying of cancer, the setup is unusual. The mother, Jackie (Sarandon), is divorced from her husband, Luke (Ed Harris), who is living with his new girlfriend, Isabel (Roberts).

Their children, 12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and 7-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken), don't have much use for Isabel, a fabulously successful fashion photographer whose boss (Darrell Larson) fears that she's losing her edge by spending too much time with the kids. The spoiled Anna in particular makes life hell for Luke and Isabel.

Very little about these relationships rings true. Luke is portrayed as a caring man whose breakup with his once-devoted wife seems increasingly inexplicable. Indeed, there's more depth of feeling in the scenes between Luke and Jackie than there is between Luke and Isabel, whose chemistry is nearly nonexistent.

Under the direction of Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Nine Months"), Malone never gets beyond Anna's brattiness, while Aiken is rarely allowed to get beyond self-conscious cuteness. Roberts' character never comes into focus, leaving Harris and Sarandon to carry the picture. Their relationship is almost too genuine; it throws everything else out of whack.

"Stepmom" appears to have more writers and producers (Sarandon and Roberts among them) than any other 1998 major-studio release. In the opening credits, the list of screenwriters is so gaudy that the CinemaScope frame almost can't contain them all. Yet the result is a cartoonish two-hour-plus soap opera of little distinction, played by actors who deserve better and should have known better.