The Mother Load


Stepmom is a woman’s picture; Thelma and Louise is a chick flick. The only reason to think of them as a pair is that Susan Sarandon costars in both. Poor Sarandon, still doing penance for Louise’s transgressions. It wasn’t bad enough that she was forced to drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Now, she has to die of cancer.

Where chick flicks are exhilarating (they depict women rebelling against traditional roles), women’s pictures are all about making women feel weepy (about the unjustness of it all) and guilty (for wanting more than a life of self-sacrifice). “Have a tissue,” said the Columbia publicity person to the critics as they exited the advance screening of Stepmom. In the world of the woman’s picture, two wet hankies trump two thumbs up.

Glossily directed by Chris Columbus and evasively penned by, count ’em, five writers including Ron Bass, Stepmom is about the relationship between the two wives (or, more exactly, the ex-wife and the wife-to-be) of a successful New York lawyer. Sarandon plays Jackie, the ex-wife who’s also a model mother; Julia Roberts plays Isabel, the wife-to-be, who’s terrified of kids, but has a great career as an A-list advertising photographer; and Ed Harris plays Luke, a big moneymaker who is a passive-aggressive shit (although the movie poses him as Mr. Right).

Roberts and Sarandon have the makings of an inspired screwball-comedy couple. Roberts is a hysteric; Sarandon is an obsessive. The differences in their worldviews come from deep within their psyches. But Stepmom is about cancer and responsibility and a family becoming one through adversity. So what we get as a climactic scene is the two stars sitting across from each other in a restaurant, both crying into their bourbon. It’s a pretty perverse form of competition— which one looks better with tear-stained cheeks?

Women’s supposedly inherent competitiveness, and how men use it to their advantage, is really what this movie is about. When Jackie can’t pick up her kids from school because she’s having chemo, Isabel tremulously seizes the opportunity to prove she’s got what it takes to be a mom. So what if she leaves two dozen people stranded at a photo shoot? It never seems to occur to anyone that Luke should take some time off from his law practice. With two rival wives, each trying to prove that she’s more worthy of love, all he has to do is sit back and adjudicate the occasional catfight.

Loathsome though Stepmom is, the eternally coltish Roberts is always a pleasure to watch and Sarandon’s mordant wit occasionally comes to the fore. “It should have been me instead of you,” Luke says magnanimously on learning that his ex has cancer. “I’ll go along with that,” Jackie replies. Still, the actresses must take part of the blame for undervaluing their talents (and their sex). They’re two of the film’s three coproducers.

Also in the family-holiday spirit is Down in the Delta, a TV-style social drama unassumingly directed by poet Maya Angelou. The rift between city and country has been the subject of a number of African American films, most notably Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, and, more indirectly, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Down in the Delta isn’t in their league— its narrative is too contrived and formulaic— but gets more involving as it goes along, thanks largely to a jittery star turn by Alfre Woodard and generous support from Al Freeman Jr. (as understated a fox as the middle-aged Paul Newman), Wesley Snipes, Mpho Koaho, and Loretta Devine.

Woodard plays Loretta, an undereducated mother-of-two who’s falling apart under the pressure of inner-city life. Loretta, a near alcoholic, can’t get a job and can’t cope with her kids, 12-year-old Thomas (Koaho) and three-year-old Tracy, who’s autistic. To keep her from succumbing to the lure of the local crackhouse, Loretta’s mother (Mary Alice) packs Loretta and the children off to live with Uncle Earl (Freeman Jr.), who lives in the Mississippi Delta. For Earl, family is everything. Not only does he welcome Loretta and her kids; he’s also trying to lure his son (Snipes), the son’s snobby wife, and their spoiled brats back from Atlanta.

Loretta, at first, is horrified to find herself making chicken sausages in Earl’s restaurant and helping to care for Earl’s wife, Annie (Esther Rolle), who has Alzheimer’s. But the Mississippi air and the atmosphere of unconditional love in Earl’s house have healing effects on the wounded city mice. Life is still tough— the local economy is collapsing— but the family that stays together and looks to its own history for courage and inspiration will survive.

I’m not so sure what a viewer who lives in the inner city and doesn’t have an Uncle Earl in Mississippi will make of this film. The blanket indictment of city life— as either crackhouse degradation or buppie consumerism— is the weakest aspect of Down in the Delta. And the perfunctory picture of the small Delta town coming together to save its last factory isn’t much more convincing.

But Down in the Delta is worth seeing for Woodard’s performance. Woodard lets us feel the constant panic and the agonizing sense of inadequacy beneath Loretta’s bravado. You can see it in her eyes every moment. Without sentimentalizing the character, she also gives us flashes, right from the beginning, of what’s potentially valuable in Loretta— her desire to stand on her own feet, to do right by her children, to be generous with other people. Woodard gives voice not just to Loretta’s desires, but to the desires of millions of women much like her— women who flaunt their bodies and say stupid things in loud voices, who’ll do anything to keep from being invisible.

Claude Chabrol specializes in bleak social comedies and brutal historic melodramas that take a pickax to the economic and power relationships of the bourgeoisie. The Swindle, his 50th film, is a failed attempt at frivolity. Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault play a pair of con artists, long-term partners who, despite a 25-year age difference, may have been lovers at some time in the past. In any event, this is a symbiotic relationship. Their most ambitious caper takes them from Paris to the Swiss mountain resort of Sils-Maria (where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra) to the Caribbean. The scenery is fetchingly photographed, as is Huppert, who changes wigs as often as others change their underpants. Even in the most tired situations, Chabrol has a few sophisticated filmmaking tricks up his sleeve. Thus the double-crossing protagonists have a visual correlative in traveling shots where it’s impossible to tell if it’s the cars or the camera that’s changed direction.