Ken Tucker compares the male roles in 'Stepmom' and 'One True Thing' and decides that one film is fairly honest about life. Can you guess which one it is?

By Josh Wolk
December 29, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
Phillip Caruso

One True Movie

By coincidence (alright, my wife likes weepy cancer movies), I saw “One True Thing” and “Stepmom” in the space of a week. In “One True Thing,” Meryl Streep is dying of cancer and comes to terms, as they say in the movies, with the problematic relationship she has with her cold, ambitious daughter, played by Renee Zellweger. In “Stepmom,” Susan Sarandon is dying of cancer and comes to terms with the younger woman her ex-husband marries — she?s played by Julia Roberts.

“One True Thing,” written by Karen Croner and directed by Carl Franklin, is a finely crafted, ambitious soap opera, complicated to good effect by William Hurt?s character: He?s a pompous, philandering failure of a husband and father to Streep and Zellweger, respectively. While the mother-daughter relationship is well-acted but predictable (you know darn well these women will make an emotional breakthrough before the credits roll) the Hurt character, complex and unlikable, gives the movie its resonance — its realism.

By contrast, Ed Harris, who plays Sarandon?s ex and Roberts? present in “Stepmom,” is so irrelevant to the drama that he disappears about halfway through the movie — just when Sarandon?s health is weakening and she would seem to need him most. This is done, I would guess, to clear the screen for Roberts, who is then given numerous big movie-star opportunities to allow her character to Grow and Connect and Go On an Emotional Journey — all those formulae they teach in screenplay school.

The result is that “One True Thing” contains many small truths, while “Stepmom,” credited to five writers from a story by Gigi Levangie, is a manipulative fake. Worse: It?s a business deal. Watching it, you can practically see the dickering that went on: For every scene in which Roberts is made to look foolish or selfish, she gets two that make her look saintly and self-sacrificing. Ditto Sarandon. And Ed Harris? He?s not a big enough star to compete in such negotiations, so he?s left on the cutting-room floor (I presume he had a bigger role to begin with). I cried a little at “One True Thing,” but “Stepmom” brought out the male chauvinist in me: I wondered, Where was that father, that husband, that ex? He?s the face clipped out of this unmoving moving picture.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Steven Zaillian
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