Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle") is an irresponsible party girl who can't hold down a job and who relies constantly on older sister Rose (Toni Collette, "Connie and Carla"), a buttoned down attorney with low self esteem and a shoe habit. Rose is fed up with her younger sister's behavior, yet loves her unreservedly, at least until Maggie completely oversteps her bounds with a nasty act of retaliation for her sister's well-earned exasperation. It's not until Maggie stumbles upon the grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine, "Bewitched"), neither knew was still alive and is forced to stand on her own two feet that she and Rose can reconnect in "In Her Shoes."
Director Curtis Hanson ("8 Mile") is proving himself amazingly adept. After tackling genres from the psychological thriller ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") to the period policier ("L.A. Confidential") to the literary comedy ("Wonder Boys"), he moves to Chick Lit and turns it into an entertainment with true human emotion and only a few minor concessions to Hollywood gloss. Hanson achieves three very well modulated performances from his three leads and added zip from a wide range of supporting players in this very handsome production.
The film begins as a study in contrast. Maggie is stumbling through a bathroom stall tryst at her high school reunion when her vomiting turns off her pickup (Anson Mount, "Tully"). Rose, so thrilled to have a man in her bed she clandestinely takes a picture, gets the late night call to pick up her passed-out sister. It's clear this has happened before, as has Maggie' stealing - Rose finds her sister is wearing her shoes (Rose's one indulgence because unlike clothes, shoes will always fit). At first the reunited sisters enjoy each other's company, but when Rose begins nudging her towards employment, Maggie turns sour. When Rose travels for work, Maggie messes up good and Rose throws her out. Then Maggie messes up some more.
It's at this point, when the sisters are parted, that the film really takes flight. Looking for money, Maggie rifles through her father's dresser drawer and discovers all the childhood cards sent by her maternal grandmother which her dad (Ken Howard, "At First Sight") never passed on (he and his mother-in-law had a major falling out on how to handle the girls' mentally unstable mother). On a whim, Maggie heads to Florida, where she surprises her grandmother and shakes up her retirement community. Ella calls Maggie's bluff, sizing her up quickly, and once forced to take some responsibility (a heavy dose of guilt for Rose also weighing in), Maggie begins to bloom. Back at home, Rose takes the opposite path, ditching her high stress job for a fun one walking dogs (more than a bit unbelievable, but a plot device to thin her out - Collette gained twenty-five pounds for Rose's initial incarnation). She also acquires a fiance in Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein, "What Women Want," "Abandon," very appealing), a former coworker she overlooked while carrying on with one of the firm's partners.
Susannah Grant's ("Erin Brockovich") adaptation of Jennifer Weiner's novel mostly dismisses the flightier aspects of the book in favor getting at what makes sisters tick. Particularly nicely handled is the way the family history is revealed slowly, gradually making clear why these women (and their grandmother) are the way they are today. A third act hurdle endangering Rose's happiness seems a little forced, but it follows romantic comedy conventions and the film gets away with it.
Diaz does a stellar job of projecting a first class screw-up with an underpinning of little girl lost that retains some amount of sympathy for the character, but she really shines as the character matures in the face of her unrelenting grandma, who says she will match what Maggie makes if she takes a job at the home. Best of all is how this works into a relationship between Maggie and a blind professor, Mr. Sofield (Norman Lloyd, "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," wonderful here), who ironically cannot be charmed by her looks and is the first to offer intellectual encouragement (Diaz's halting reading of Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Art of Losing' and her pleasure in having interpreted correctly is her best moment in the film - unfortunately Hollywooditis steps in by having her take the focus away from her sister's wedding ceremony to recite another poem, something which would have been easier to take as a reception toast). Collette has the less flashy role, but she's the stronger actress and inhabits it with ease. The greater surprise is that Hanson has gotten a quiet performance out of MacLaine, an actress whose senior years have been rife with bigger, broad performances. She's terrific here as the stabilizing force who glues the family back together, yet still invests Ella with a goodly amount of humor, particularly in her budding romance with Lewis Feldman (Jerry Adler, TV's "Raising Dad" and ""Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis"). The film's absolute scene stealer, though, is Francine Beers ("Keeping the Faith") as Ella's electric-cart riding buddy Mrs. Lefkowitz.
Production design has a natural contrast between Rose's gray Philadelphia and the pale but sunny pastels of Florida. The retirement community has a great plan that allows Ella her own space independent of the adjoining nursing home facilities with grounds that include a pool Maggie can strut her stuff to. Costume by Sophie Carbonell ("Just Like Heaven") is mindful of both Rose and Maggie's character arcs and features designer shoes to drool over.
"In Her Shoes" is what has become an increasing rarity - a big, commercial Hollywood entertainment targeted mainly at women that actually has some smarts. This ain't no "Ya-Ya's." Hanson's film is a two hour plus story that he's made effortlessly engaging without sacrificing substance.
Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a smart, focused, though insecure, woman working as a high-profile attorney at a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. Her sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is a party hardy girl who goes through jobs like changes of underwear. They are best friends as sisters can be but complete opposites, too. When screw-up Maggie breaks that last straw with Rose, sleeping with her boyfriend, their lives will go through radical changes “In Her Shoes.”
The title “shoes” are a metaphor for several things, from the obvious literal to the symbolic. Rose and Maggie are two sides of the same coin as the former has low self-esteem, but can always trust shoes to fit if nothing else in life does, and the latter is so unfocused she doesn’t even have an address to call her own. Merged into one person, the pair might just be a complete entity, but their constant conflict of lifestyles and values is a wedge driven between them.
When Maggie screws up one too many times, Rose throws her out. This proves to be the catalyst of change for the sisters. Maggie, finding unopened birthday cards for her and Rose from their maternal grandparents, decides to track them down and heads to Florida. Rose, disgusted with her boss/lover (who, indiscreetly, had carnal knowledge with Maggie), gives up the law in favor of dog walking. The alterations in lifestyle will, of course, force far-reaching changes in both.
“In Her Shoes” is an intelligent chick-flick by eclectic helmer Curtis Hansen (quite the departure from “8 Mile,” “Wonder Boys” and “LA Confidential”) and represents the further stretching of his filmmaking muscles. The principally femme cast has, besides Collette and Diaz, a strong and funny performance by Shirley MacLaine as the two sisters’ self-sufficient and savvy grandmother, Ella. The veteran actress creates a real 3D person who was estranged, by her son’s new wife, from her girls after their mother’s death years before. MacLaine is a real anchor for the film.
Collette and Diaz are more two-dimensional as the opposite thinking Feller sisters. Diaz’s Maggie is so selfish and uncaring in the film’s first half that she is actually unlikable. That the actress and screenplay, by Susannah Grant (adapted from the novel by Jennifer Weiner), are able to turn this around is a credit to both. Collette has a tough job in that she had to gain about 25 pounds to play the career conscious, overweight Maggie, losing the weight during the course of the film as her look on life goes through drastic changes. I’m always amazed at the dedication to the craft this takes – look at Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” and Christian Bale in “The Machinist” for other extreme examples of what actors do for their art.
The supporting cast is capably handled across the board. Francine Beers, as Ella’s friend and ward, Mrs. Lefkowitz, steals the show every time she is on screen. The denizen’s of the retirement community, from the old men who adore Maggie to the matrons she helps buy clothes, are characters not caricatures. Mark Feuerstein, as Rose’s adoring and patient boyfriend, Simon Stein, has the tough role as the token male in the predominantly female film.
This is a tightly produced flick that uses its Philadelphia and Florida locales to good effect. Production designer Dan Davis keeps the up north locations cloaked in darker hues but switches to bright pastels when Maggie moves into Ella retirement home. Photography, by Terry Stacey, is in keeping with the production effort.
Grant’s script flows well through most of the film but stumbles a bit as it tries to neatly tie things up in the end. Still, at 130-minute runtime, I was surprised at how well paced Hanson and company keep things going.
The guys may go kicking and screaming when their spouses and girlfriends drag them to see “In Her Shoes” but, frankly, I’ve had far worse times at a “chick flick.” I give it a B.
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