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“Love and a bit with a dog—that’s what they want,” counsels theater manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush). But young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) isn’t content to write crowd-pleasing farces, even if his writer’s block is destroying his life: Investors in the Rose Theatre want to recoup if they have to torture it out of Henslowe; work proceeds slowly on Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter; and everywhere Will goes, people throw the more successful playwright Christopher Marlowe in his face. The legendary 16th-century actor Richard Burbage is wowing the groundlings over at the Rose’s rival, the Curtain, making a hero of Marlowe and giving employment to actors who want a ride on a bandwagon that’s going somewhere.

This delicious premise makes free with historical fact but keeps its emotional integrity intact while proposing a whimsical, romantic answer to the question: How did something like Romeo and Juliet come to be written? The screenplay, originally written by Marc Norman and polished and sharpened by Tom Stoppard until it swooshes and tinkles like clashing rapiers, incorporates popular Shakespeareana, prescient setups, anachronistic asides, and period legends into a soufflé of swirling tresses and dresses, Hollywood inside jokes posing as stage inside jokes, and a ravishing love story no less enchanting for being chock full of hooey. The mix of fact with the most transparent fiction makes the story resonate. If Shakespeare has inspired countless dreams, then this, the movie says, may be how Shakespeare himself dreamed.

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The blocked writer tries to keep his head above the grubby fallout of his procrastination—he whiles away the time practicing his signature—but in this noisy, jostling London, he finds it impossible to avoid Henslowe’s pleadings or Marlowe’s infuriating ubiquity. (Their rivalry is played as timeless farce—”I love your early work,” Will tells Kit cattily.) Making the royal rounds one night—the best playwrights are granted the indulgence of theater-mad Queen Elizabeth, played by Judi Dench at her most regal and human—Will is smitten on sight by Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a swan-necked young beauty of huge accidental fortune. Viola is unattainable, Will is inspired, and the two of them enact a passionate clandestine courtship while Will takes notes.

Disguised as a boy, Viola auditions for the role of Romeo and wins, so their romance plays out on several levels. They meet fleetingly as themselves, smooch behind the curtains during rehearsals (Romeo’s facial hair is a little disconcerting), and enact their own romance by proxy, with the lady playing the swain to a male Juliet and the swain directing the action he created but can share only in secret.

Shakespeare in Love is as much about the theater as it is about love—a good thing, considering what a gorgeous stiff Fiennes is, his ardor more self-directed than aimed at Paltrow’s utterly worthy target. The lovers are products of the stage who find their romantic dreams inadequate to the demands of their real lives—their passions are operatic, their means of expressing them insufficient. The film takes place in the gap between dramatic self-imagining and mundane existence, positing that art bridges the two by giving specific expression to universal longings.

A central montage tracks the play’s rehearsals while Will and Viola act out the story privately; it is an homage to the artistic process and to the love story. Romeo and Juliet comes together the way all fiction does, using organic elements as well as the man-made kind. Will feathers the basic nest of his play in plausible dribs and drabs, using ideas and phrases that have been overheard, stolen outright, or vaguely remembered; characters based on life but artfully camouflaged; and idealized re-enactments of ordinary interaction.

Norman and Stoppard’s script is appropriately feisty and full of vinegar—egos clash, couples unite, debts go unpaid, and the pot of intellectual commitment keeps bubbling. Paltrow seems to have come alive after a long period of cinematic stupor, Rupert Everett has far too little to do in his turn as the unlucky Marlowe, and Ben Affleck is fabulously fatuous and confident in a small role as an actor so egotistical he’ll only play Mercutio when he’s told it’s the play’s title.

Stepmom is Dr. Laura’s nightmare. The popular radio shrink and self-righteous moral arbiter would have a field day with Chris Columbus’ holiday tear-jerker, which seems designed to counter every one of her moral absolutes. I have to say, for people with much more fluid definitions of the right thing, Stepmom is adult-centric, consumerist, shallow rubbish. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie—with the exception of a funny school Thanksgiving pageant you can catch on the video version—but the selfish, cavalier behavior of the adult principals motivates the action. So here’s a list of family musts and the film’s violations that made your footloose and immoral reviewer see red.

Married couples and bio-folks must care for their children.

This movie is called Stepmom, but Julia Roberts’ character, a leather-pants-wearing fashion photographer named Isabel, is not married to Luke (Ed Harris). She is not a stepmom but what Dr. Laura would call a shack-up, and this situation is making the children miserable and confused as they’re shuttled between girlfriend-smitten Dad and understandably exasperated mom Jackie (Susan Sarandon).

Don’t do things that make your children miserable and confused.

No wonder 12-year-old Anna is telling lies at school and mouthing off at home—Dad’s girlfriend is incompetent and slothful, thinking her incandescent smile is apt compensation for shameful mothering skills. “I’d walk through fire for Anna,” Luke tells the school guidance counselor, but if that’s true, all he needs to do is kick Isabel out and try being a father to his kids for a minute. He’d walk through fire for Isabel; Anna will have to do her own laundry.

Teach your children the value of money.

These people are cozily rich in the way only movie characters and the folks who film them can understand. Maybe ex-wife Jackie won’t buy Ben an expensive magician’s gadget, but that doesn’t stop Dad from stocking Ben’s room with probably $10,000 worth of vintage magician’s posters, or either of the kids from taking for granted the compensatory puppies and concert tickets that Mom and Isabel strew in their path.

Kids come first.

Luke tries to convince Jackie to stop warring with Isabel by saying, “The kids’ll be OK if we’re OK”—a flabbergasting bit of ’70s pop psychology retooled for the lazy modern parent.

Kids need dads.

Luke drops out of the picture for about 40 minutes while Jackie is diagnosed with cancer and must find a way to turn over her family to Isabel without destroying the children. No explanation is given for his disappearance, but Stepmom’s grasp of adult working environments is spotty—apparently, the senior editor answers the phone at big publishing houses.

People need closure.

Stepmom ends by not existing anymore. CP