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Review: The Stepfather

By  · Published on October 16th, 2009

As if by magic, The Stepfather is almost exactly like the outward persona of its main character – it’s likable, good, and mostly knows what to say, but it’s not lovable, great, and its definitely not without its flaws. Essentially, on the metaphorical amps in my mind, everything here has been cranked up to 6. Perhaps the most apt description of the film is that it’s competent commercial filmmaking, but nothing at all special.

David Harris (or whatever his name is going to be with the next family (Dylan Walsh)) leaves a murdered family behind to go find a new one, and stumbles upon Susan (Sela Ward) and her two kids in the supermarket. A few months of courtship later, he’s moved in just in time for her oldest son Michael (Penn Badgley) to come home from military school for the summer. Can they be the perfect family, or will have to kill them all and move on again?

Of course we all know the answer to that, just as all know almost every beat of this movie from before we even see it. It’s better than I expected, but it does suffer from popping right out of the Paint By Numbers Book of Thrillers.

There’s definitely some good in this movie. The writing is fairly tight – there’s nothing phenomenal but nothing unintentionally humorous or cheesy. Each character seems to have logical motivations and real-life familial problems that all bubble under the surface, come raging out, or get dealt with in a healthy manner – all organically. The acting is good with Dylan Walsh being creepy (but not too creepy), Sela Ward searching for love (but not being too much of a standout), Penn Badgley playing the concerned, steadfast son (but doesn’t stray into too much serious dramatic territory), and Amber Heard being generally clothed in bikinis and underwear (but not too much underwear).

Much like the kid who sits in the middle of the classroom and turns all his homework in on time, this movie is diligent, deserves a pat on the back, but no one can ever remember its name after the end of the semester.

On the positive end of things, Michael does have a moment where his disconnection with his birth father drives him to quiet, headphones-on, tears, but that’s about as strong as the emotional level gets. It all balances, of course, with screenwriter J.S. Cardone’s inability to get out of the rut he places himself in. Although this flick is much better than his previous attempts Prom Night and The Covenant, you can almost see the conveyor belt of his mind churning out the same scenes over and over again with slightly different dialog. Family at the dinner table, David and Susan talk before she leaves for work, Michael and bikini-clad Kelly hang out by the pool and discuss his paranoia, rinse, repeat. For the first half, it’s interesting, but it outstays its welcome pretty quickly after that. So much so that I found myself wondering why the film was 2 hours instead of a trimmed-down hour and a half. Nothing new gets explored, a new person becomes suspicious every little while and needs to be dispatched conveniently, suspicions grow and subside only to grow again.

That partially has to do with a fairly tepid subplot involving Susan’s sister Jackie (Paige Turco) and her wife Leah (Sherry Stringfield) that gets a lot of screen time at a crucial moment while two other characters, notably the younger children, seem to disappear from the mind of the filmmaker for little to no reason. It’s important that they be there because it would be a fairly insular family without them, but they seem to exist only as a gruesome punchline to a joke that keeps getting retold.

It all follows the predictable path on a flat line until the completely underwhelming conclusion which sort of lays there on the screen like a dead fish being served for dessert. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but it seems a bit like the filmmakers wanted their cake, to eat it to, and to eat the audience’s, hoping you wouldn’t notice or care.

Which isn’t so far off as an assumption because it’s difficult to care about anything in this movie. Don’t get me wrong. Everything positive I’ve said stands, but it never breaks through that ceiling of averageness to become something better. It’s digestible and unoffensive, there trying not to get on anyone’s nerves. And it succeeds in mediocre baby steps and bounds.

The Upside: Decent characters, decent acting, and a decent story.

The Downside: Predictability and absolutely nothing special about it.

On the side: This flick is, of course a remake of the 1987 film of the same name starring “Lost” star Terry O’Quinn which in turn was loosely based on the true life of John List, a man who killed his family and disappeared.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.