Our Day Will Come

The Turning Point provides the head: two women--one with children, one with a career--trading barbs because, naturally, each is jealous of the other. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft were former and fading ballerinas, respectively; Sarandon and Roberts are first and second wives. Their insults sound processed and petty this time around--maybe because most women have negotiated a truce with the career-family conflict. The dramatic question here is: When will fashion photographer Isabel (Roberts) junk her job to become a stay-at-home stepmother? (I hear it's the new yuppie accessory.) The answer has much to do with Stepmom's heart, borrowed from Terms of Endearment: Somebody is Dying, in other words, and it takes a Long Time. Don't bring a few tissues, grab the box.

As Jackie, the perfect mom, Sarandon has never been so overbearing. I never understood the criticism of her as a smug, affected actress until now. She has chosen one too many priggish roles, and her face seems to have sunk into the habit. Even after Jackie and Isabel quit their spat, she remains a condescending, suffocating, eye-popping horror--which makes me wonder if the "tragedy" of Stepmom is actually more of a revenge. Isabel represents the friendly, big-sister mother, one who's quick to admit her faults and then excuse them with a hurt "I'm trying!" Judging from a male purr in the row behind me, Roberts's cool version appears ascendant: This year's model mom is at most 15 years older than the oldest child, with legs up to here.

For, beneath its concern with maternal ideals, Stepmom is consumed with consumption. In its wide-eyed love of all things upper-middle class--trophy wives, comfortably cavernous Victorian houses, granite-countered penthouse kitchens, late-model Land Rovers, and idyllic horseback rides--Chris Columbus's movie plays junior partner to Meet Joe Black. Its careful details remind me that women's pictures, like sequined girl-group glamour, have often enticed audiences with the dream of wealth. The viewer walks the path of the characters' emotional crises into a beautiful, shiny world; she lives within it for two (long) hours. There's a cost to this particular fantasy, though: In Isabel's world of money, a mother's choice to work is less a matter of necessity than of selfish whim. So when the viewer returns on her path, she's burdened with a guilt unlooked for and unearned.

Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta
Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta

If Stepmom grovels to an epic "Mama Said," John Madden's Shakespeare in Love spins giddy circles around "Leader of the Pack." A businessman's daughter worships poetry and theater, and aches to drown in the romance they celebrate. She disguises herself as an actor and auditions for a play, winning not only the part but the eager attention of the playwright, an impassioned, rebellious idealist from the wrong side of the tracks. Her parents would kill him if they knew. They've set her up with an older fellow from a good family. What can she do? Their love is doomed!

A threadbare scheme--except, in the beguiling version by writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the year is 1593; the playwright, Will Shakespeare; the play struggling to be written, Romeo and Juliet. And the part assigned to the fair maiden? Romeo. Women of the day were not players, so Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) disguises herself as a man to stalk the stage. Do not fear that any opportunity for titillating mustache-meeting will pass unplundered: Viola takes her first taste of Will (Joseph Fiennes) as a man, and shakes the playwright silly. In one thrilling sequence, Will woos Viola with words that she speaks in turn as Romeo: Each is at once the lover and the loved. Fiennes makes a brash and sexy romantic idiot; and if shallow Paltrow were at all believable as a man, let alone an actor, their entanglement would pass beyond mere gender play and begin to represent something as rich and strange as the disappearance of difference in sexual union.

As it is, though, we must be content with a wild and witty movie, reeling with Shakespeare's drunken language of love and goosed with playwright Stoppard's clever banter. Smart contributions from the rest of the cast, including Geoffrey Rush, Imelda Staunton, and Colin Firth, grant every scene a fluid immediacy. Dame Judi Dench, as an impeccably sharp Queen Elizabeth, provides wry, needling commentary on the interwoven tales of all-encompassing love. Because, in the end, Will must set his muse free, to create her life; and Viola must let her playwright go, so she can write her own lines. The last scene offers its heroine--and its audience--perhaps the greatest gift any women's picture (or song) made by men can muster: a mysterious horizon and a blank expanse of beach, where we might make our mark.

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