Director Chris Columbus is about as qualified to offer lessons on complex human drama as Bill Clinton and Bob Livingston are to lead marriage seminars. After all, this guy's one claim to painting the brilliant portrait of human experience is "Mrs. Doubtfire."
It's not surprising, then, that the conflicts in this film are propelled along by disingenuous emotions which compel the audience to despise the very insipid characters they're supposed to root for along their respective cathartic journeys.
Jackie (Susan Sarandon) rips into Isabel (Julia Roberts) at every opportunity because Isabel is the new younger woman in the life of ex-husband Luke (Ed Harris). At the center of their conflict is 12-year-old Anna (Jena Malone) and 8-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken). Anna resents Isabel, and is as nasty as a prepubescent snot can be, short of dousing Julia with lighter fluid and making a pretty woman-kabob. Normally I would never advocate hitting a child (psychological torture is much more effective), but after a few minutes of Anna, I began to think that euthanasia via wheat thresher might be too gentle a punishment.
The film's solution to finding a bond between all these warring people caught in today's culture of cut-and-paste families is simple: Give Jackie cancer. In a drama, giving somebody cancer is the action-film equivalent of blowing up a gasoline tanker. "Hey guys, we don't have a plot, but we do have a fifty-million dollar budget! Let's blow something up!" suddenly becomes "Hey guys, we don't have the faintest idea how to resolve our character's problems! Let's give somebody cancer!" They should have just blown Anna up.
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