In Her Shoes: Hanson’s Chick Flick Starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette

Gifted director Curtis Hanson departs from his male-dominated films with In Her Shoes, a well-executed chic flick about the rivalry between two warring sisters (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette), reunited by their long-absent grandmother (Shirley MacLaine).

In the old studio system, In Her Shows would have been labeled a woman’s picture and assigned to directors like George Cukor, Edmund Goulding, and Irving Rapper. In more recent times, it’s the kind of turf charted by Herbert Ross in The Turning Point, which also starred Shirley MacLaine in a story about the rivalry between two mature women, one a housewife, the other aging dancer (Anne Bancroft).

As a multi-generational serio comedy, In Her Shoes should appeal to both young and older females. However, the big question is whether men would go for this dramedy, whether called girlish stuff, chick flick, or a weeper.

Based on Jennifer Weiner’s best-selling novel, In Her Shoes is as mainstream Hollywood as Hanson has gone; it’s his most conventional and middlebrow movie to date. As such, it will vastly disappoint Hanson’s fans, who liked the far superior L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys.

Though mostly associated with noir thrillers in the first phase of his career, The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The River Wild, Hanson’s two-decade oeuvre is more versatile. In the late 1990s, Hanson reached his stride with two superlative films, the Oscar-winning noir policier, L.A. Confidential and the sharp satire of modern-day academe, Wonder Boys.

You don’t have to be an auteurist critic to detect thematic continuities in Hanson’s films, many of which are coming-of-age stories, whether they deal with youth (8 Mile), cops (L.A. Confidential) or professors and their students (Wonder Boys).

Before analyzing the film, I should point out that one of Hanson’s achievements is the high-quality acting he has coxed out of Cameron Diaz, in her more satisfying role to date, and particularly Shirley MacLaine, who for the first time in decades, doesn’t overact or chew the scenery, as she did this summer in Nora Ephron’s terrible comedy, Bewitched.

I have reservations about Susannah Grant’s script, similar to those I had about her writing in Erin Brockovitch, which was structured as a star vehicle for Julia Roberts. Grant can write good, sharp dialogue, but her writing can also be schematic and over-explicit. Everything is spelled out, and the scenes are closed; Grant obviously doesn’t believe in ambiguity.

The story of “In Her Shoes” is rather conventional, contrasting two warring sisters who are opposites. Maggie (Diaz) is a sexy, drop-dead gorgeous woman who can’t hold a job or any responsibility. She’s a screw-up who loves to party, drink, and have sex. In contrast, Rose (Collette) is slightly older, less attractive but successful career woman. Rose resents Maggie easy way and success with men, and the fact that she has to take care of her whenever in need, which is always.

After a seductive montage of black high-heel shoes, during which the credits roll, Rose’s voice-over begins the film; it also closes the yarn, givinig it symmetry.

Still in bed, Rose gets a call about Maggie, who has passed out on the floor of a club; a heavy drinker and partygoer, Maggie says, I know what Im good at. Maggie moves into Rose’s place, and starts browsing through her belongings. One morning, when Rose’ boyfriend leaves, she steals money from his wallet.

Rose carries on a romance with her married colleague, only to be dumped by him on a business trip to Chicago, when he cancels the last moment and instead sends her shy co-worker (an appealing Mark Feurstein). Meanwhile, Maggie auditions for acting gigs, but she can read the teleprompter, and that line of work quickly vanishes.

When I feel bad, food makes me fat, but shoes always make me feel good, they always treat me nicely Rose says by way of explaining her huge, meticulously arranged collection of shoes that come in different shapes and colors. Stealing yet another pair of elegant shoes, Maggie breaks the heel of one of Rose’s fave pairs, an ominous sign for bad things to come.

A good-time girl, Maggie gets into a car with two strangers, and before long she needs to escape when they try to rape her. Careless about parking, the car she had “borrowed” from Rose gets towed away.

Meanwhile, both sisters are not particularly welcome by their stepmother, who keeps talking about her birth daughter, while their sensitive, loving father, who raised the girls after their mother’s death at young age a car accident, watches helplessly. Maggie finds by accident a bunch of unopened birthday cards, within which there’s a $5 bill. The sender is always the same: their long-absent grandma, who leaves in Miami.

Turning point is when Maggie is caught sleeping with Rose’s boyfriend. Kicked out of the house, with no money or place to stay, what’s a girl to do She goes to her grandma. Once Maggie leaves town, the story switches back and forth between Pensylvania and Miami.

In Miami, wearing her skin-tight bikini, Maggie is devoured by the old men’s looks; such vision of beauty has never before seen in their community. For her part, after quitting her legal work, Rose begins to date ex-colleague Simon, who takes her out to basketball games and exotic restaurants.

The point of the story, of course, is role reversal. As Rose gets to be the outdoor type, after years of working as a lawyer, Maggie gets to be the indoor girl, socializing with her grandma’s yenta friends, or tending to an old blind man at the hospital, who likes to be read novels. Maggie, who suffers from dyslexia and has reading problems, needs to be educated and needs to become less self-absorbed. Rose, in contrast, needs to start thinking more seriously about her emotional needs and personal feelings.

The relationship between Maggie and grandma is off to a bed start, when Maggie is caught stealing money from her purse, but gradually, the two warm up to each other’s needs and enjoy their company. This is the film’s weakest part since the narrative needs to explain what has made MacLaine an absent grandma, after the death of her daughter, the girls mom.

In the hospital, Maggie befriends the old man, and when he suddenly dies, she feels an acute pain. In due time, Maggie develops all the necessary domestic skills every woman needs, cooking and cleaning.

The film unfolds as a study of opposites. Hanson shows how Rose finds the lighter side in her, while Maggie finds the more serious and responsible in her. Rose’s quiet, introverted lawyer’s life is continuously interrupted by her irresponsible sister. Love is not the issue. Problem is, they are living in each other’s pockets, which has confounded their ability to be their own individual selves.

While the film’s premise is simple, the joy is in the execution, in the detail of characterization and nuance of performances. Realizing that Diaz is playing the splashier, sexier role, and thus can switch audiences easily to her side, Hanson maintains a careful–perhaps too careful–balance in presenting their respective journeys toward self-discovery and empowerment. At times, the cross-cutting is too obvious, as when a suntanned Maggie is bathing in a swimming pool, while Rose is fully dressed in the dead of winter.

Diaz and Collette share the same time as lead actresses or co-stars, with MacLaine in a supporting role. It will be interesting to see how the studio (Fox) handles Academy campaigns for the film and its actresses;. The poster, which features the three actresses names above the title, but only Diaz in its art, has already created controversy.

For most of the film, the stories are depicted through crosscutting that tries to give each character (and actress) equal attention and screen time. The tale is about placing obstacles for the bickering sisters to fight about and overcome before reaching a grand rapprochement. We wait for the predictable resolution, when the two disjointed lives will come together in an emotionally rousing scene, and when it finally arrives, were gratified and relieved that it’s over.

Hanson takes his time to establish locale and character. As always, his direction is intelligent, sharp, and precise. In every scene, he gets right to the center with minimal time and unobrusive style. However, the material is not too deep or original, and a lesser director would have taken a different approach, turning it into a juicier melodrama or a broader sitcom; the movie is only one notch above TV.

Whenever the story gets too mushy and sentimental, as in the big reunion and family reconciliation, Hanson is shrewd enough to cut to the next scene, but ultimately, he can’t overcome the melodramatic trapings of the material.

Hanson has turned Rebecca De Mornay into the nanny from hell, Meryl Streep into an action heroine, and Kim Basinger into a respectable Oscar-winning actress. And now, in his new movie, Curtis has turned Diaz into a more dramatic (and less goofy) actress, MacLaine into a restrained performer, a major feat in its own right, and Collette into a rather attractive woman (since Collette was always a good actress).

Like other actors who have worked with Hanson before, Diaz gets to stretch and reveal new dimensions of her persona. She begins as a deliciously sexy and funny, embodying traits of Hollywood erotic blondes of yesteryear, from Marilyn Monroe to Goldie Hawn. Diaz is a good foil for Collette, as the more frumpy and pragmatic sibling. The two complement each other as characters and actresses, each playing a multi-nuanced role.

Watching Rose’s ex-career woman walking dogs with a big smile on her face brings to mind Geena Davis role in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Accidental Tourist, in which she played an eccentric dog-trainer and for which she won a Supporting Oscar. Having been nominated before, for playing Haley Joel Osment’s suffering and bewildered mother in The Sixth Sense, the question is whether her part will yield another Oscar nomination, and in what category, lead or supporting

Coming to think about it, in L.A. Confidential, the characters were complementary opposites, too. Initially, Bud White and Ed Exley were different sides of the same coin. However, when they discovered in themselves what the other had, they not only became a formidable team but also better versions of themselves. Similarly, In Her Shoes is a study of opposites. Hanson shows how Rose finds the lighter side in her, while Maggie finds the more serious side in her, and how in the process they become more fulfilled, as independent women and co-dependent sisters.