"In Her Shoes," which may be in danger of getting confused for a frothy and disposable comedy aimed squarely at women over twenty-five, is anything but. The female population will largely like it, to be sure, but it won't be the movie they were expecting based on 20th Century Fox's marketing campaign. Furthermore, the film is hard-hitting and incisive enough that it crosses all borders of gender and race, portraying non-stereotypical characters and tricky familial dynamics that most any audience member will be able to recognize and relate to from his or her own life. Marvelously acted by a trio of talents and hitting so few false notes along the way that they are hardly worth a mention, "In Her Shoes" is episodic mainstream filmmaking done right, proving that intelligence and a believable narrative flow of events need not strain for treacly manipulation, dumbed-down story developments, or cutesy broad comedic strokes.
Besides, the picture isn't about a predictable dotted-line plot that moves from A to B to C anyway, instead thriving through director Curtis Hanson's (2002's "8 Mile
") and screenwriter Susannah Grant's (2000's "28 Days
") astute and frequently poignant handling of a number of subjectssibling and parental relationships; self-esteem issues; feeling directionless in what you want to do with your life; the thin line between responsibility and doing what makes you happiest, and the sometimes skewed nature of childhood memories. The characters inhabited by Cameron Diaz (2002's "The Sweetest Thing
"), Toni Collette (2004's "Connie and Carla
") and Shirley MacLaine (2005's "Bewitched
") feel like real peopleflawed and messy, but ultimately sympathetic and goodmaking the journey of self-discovery they take just as important, if not more so, than the final destination.
Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose Feller (Toni Collette) may be sisters, and they may love each other, but their relationship is akin to oil and vinegar. Maggie, the 28-year-old younger of the two, is immature, irresponsible, relies on her body for personal gain, and treats those closest to her like generous bank tellers. With their mother dead and their father usually preoccupied with his new family, Rose is left to take care of Maggie and pick up the broken pieces she leaves behind. A high-powered workaholic lawyer with self-image conflicts and not much of a social life, Rose's last straw falls out from under her when she finds Maggie in bed with her sort-of boyfriend. With no one to turn to after being kicked out, and having recently discovered the existence of a grandmother she never knew existed, Maggie heads for Miami. It is there, in a "retirement community for active seniors," that Maggie comes face to face with Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), the last real relative from her mother's side of the family. As Maggie becomes acquainted with her grandma, initially using her for financial intentions before discovering her own self-worth where she least expects it, Rose, back in Philadelphia, opts for an invigorating change of pace in her career life while starting a romance with former co-worker Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein).
Based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner, "In Her Shoes" is a refreshingly humane drama and a multidimensional slice-of-life, unsentimental in tone and all the more emotionally resounding because of it. There are a fair share of funny moments, but they arrive naturally through the interactions of the characters rather than by way of slapstick or one-liners. And, if the wrap-up is fairly conventional and easily predicted, it too stays true to the protagonists and feels authentic. The film is filled with well-realized moments, some painful and explosive, and others strikingly effective in their subtlety. Meanwhile, director Curtis Hanson steers clear of going over-the-top or pulling at the viewers' heartstrings; he trusts that the material is strong enough to strike chords within the viewer without having false melodramatic occurrences and a weepy instrumental score that spells out how the viewer should feel, and he's right. When Maggie begins working at a local nursing home and finds an unexpected friendship with an ailing blind man who forces her to overcome her fear of reading (she suffers from dyslexia), the results are beautifully touching. Later, a scene in which Maggie and Rose recount a fond memory from their childhood to Ella, only for Maggie to experience a dark revelation about that day she had no way of knowing occurred, is a powerhouse of writing and performance.
In a meaty role diverse from her normal happy-go-lucky screen counterparts, Cameron Diaz gives one of her most accomplished turns to date. Her Maggie is a difficult character, enraging and selfish and frustrating, but Diaz aids in making her a person of depth and ultimate understanding. In many ways, Maggie is an innocenta woman closing in on thirty who has never had to face growing up because she has always relied on others for what she hasand the path she takes to ultimately coming-of-age and widening her horizon is earnestly felt. Toni Collette amazes as she usually does as older sister Rose, and the burden she faces with being responsible for Maggie is both uncompromising and perceptive. Collette is a joy to watch work, taking lines that might have sounded scripted under lesser guidance and making them as real as life itself. She goes one step further by also going through a clear physical transformation; Collette reportedly gained twenty-five pounds for the role and gradually lost it during the shoot to underline Rose's gradual empowerment. Finally, Shirley MacLaine, often such a bigger-than-life onscreen presence, reels back the showy energy to deliver one of her most controlled and tender performances in ages as estranged grandmother Ella, who is dealing with her own regrets from the past.
If the film befalls any problem areas, it is in the switching back and forth between Rose in Philadelphia, and Maggie and Ella in Miami. Because of this, there are seemingly long stretches where one of the main characters is gone from the screen to focus on another, coming close to distancing them from the audience. Luckily, director Curtis Hanson and his incendiary actors overcome this because the characters are so nicely developed and continuously interesting. At 130 minutes, "In Her Shoes" is lengthy, but never extraneous, earning every one of its scenes because each exposes a new layer to the characters or offers a penetrating observation about human nature. Far from being just a so-called "chick flick" (a term I have always detested), "In Her Shoes" is a smart and surprisingly rewarding gem with resonating themes and ideas that transcend such a presumptuous, sexist label.