You might get a little queasy during the scene in Stepmom in which a dying Susan Sarandon bonds with her family by lip-synching to a classic Motown song while frolicking in a postcard-ready country home. Or, considering that the scene engages in what is now a long tradition of upper-class white movie characters bonding to classic soul music—in this case Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"—you might just feel that you've seen it before. That's a difficult feeling to shake throughout this efficiently engineered tear-extraction machine, and not a pleasant one. As the unwelcome live-in girlfriend of ineffectual working dad Ed Harris, Julia Roberts is under a lot of pressure, a fact established in the first scene, during which she awakens to the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure" only to be greeted by Harris and Sarandon's sulking pre-pubescent daughter (Jena Malone) and tow-headed son (Liam Aiken). Her situation gets slowly better, however, as the movie progresses and Roberts learns to be a better surrogate mother while Sarandon slips closer to what's bound to be a very tasteful death. At moments, its cast almost allows Stepmom to transcend its hopelessly maudlin base, allowing contrived conflicts over misplaced children and parental advice to seem almost meaningful. But praising Sarandon, Roberts, and Harris is sort of like praising the special effects in Armageddon: They're sure to look good because they cost enough, but if the rest of the movie doesn't work, it doesn't matter. And the rest of the movie—the last third of which is given over almost entirely to scenes of different cast configurations thrown together for the sole purpose of synchronized weeping—doesn't really work, even if, given its subject matter and cast, it can't help but be moving in its own little way.

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