Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl who has tested every relationship in her life. Drunk at her high school reunion, with no where else to turn, she calls her sister, Rose (Toni Collette), a successful, but lonely attorney. Rose grudgingly allows Maggie to move in, crashing on her couch. A few weeks later, Maggie has officially overstayed her welcome. She can't go home to her father, his wife won't allow Maggie to live there. So Maggie travels to Florida to visit her grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine), a woman she didn't know was still alive. In Florida, Maggie gradually learns about her place in life. Back at home, Rose deals with a conniving co-worker and falls in love with Simon (Mark Feuerstein). Eventually, distraught over Maggie's disappearance, Rose gets a letter from Ella.
"In Her Shoes", directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential", "8 Mile") is a film filled with good and great performances. Ultimately, the performances help this "chick flick" overcome a story that is not the most original or interesting. It's all about the performances.
Curtis Hanson has consistently demonstrated his range and provided evidence of his skill as a director. His body of work can not be categorized as simply "drama", "comedy" or "mystery". Each film has shown that he has a good handle on the conventions of the genre; in some cases, he shows mastery ("L.A. Confidential", "Wonder Boys"), in others, a good understanding ("The River Wild", "8 Mile"). With each film, I have found myself more and more appreciative of his talent as a skilled director. Few directors working today are as adept at moving from one genre to the next. If they do this, they are not skilled enough to make each and every film enjoyable on some level. Curtis Hanson has proven that he has the skill and I eagerly anticipate his new films.
"In Her Shoes" is a "chick flick", whether the studio, Cameron Diaz or anyone else wants us to believe otherwise. Instead of trying to downplay this angle, and lose potential viewers, why not embrace it? Was it really necessary for Diaz to go on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and repeatedly mention how "human" the story was? Stewart picked up on this and it was one of his funniest interviews in a while. If you embrace what the film is, the woman will flock to the theaters with their sisters, mothers, aunts, boyfriends, etc. in tow. Tell the women to bring a box of tissue, their boyfriends and husbands can dole it out as needed.
The relationship between Maggie and Rose is the key to the film and it is remarkably balanced. Maggie, the beautiful, but dumb party girl has always used her looks to get her dates, drinks and "companionship". Rose is the studious, hard worker who spends every available hour at the firm, working. She also buys a lot of expensive shoes, even though she doesn't use them. Even though they get on each other's nerves, and drive each other crazy, they are still sisters and love each other. When Maggie travels to Florida, she doesn't tell anyone where she is, more to spite Rose for kicking her out. But her sister becomes concerned and scared about what has happened to Maggie. As Maggie begins to appreciate life with her grandmother, she doesn't feel it necessary to tell anyone. In fact, when Rose finds out, Maggie becomes a bit jealous, momentarily, until they begin to share things as sisters again.
Of the two younger actresses, Toni Collette's performance is better. Collette is simply a better actress and it shows in the way she reveals so many different layers to her character. Rose, always concerned about her looks, is the stronger, smarter sister. Yet, just because she is stronger and smarter, doesn't mean that she doesn't feel loneliness and make dumb decisions. When a partner at her firm gives her the eye, she immediately falls for the attention and begins a short-lived relationship. Throughout the film, we learn more and more about the contradictions in her character making the performance always interesting to watch.
This is not to say that Cameron Diaz is bad. She is very good in this film, perhaps her best performance ever. But her character is not as multifaceted as that of Rose. Basically, Maggie is a party girl and she is perceived as dumb. When she arrives in Florida, these conventions are put to the test and her character evolves. As she begins to challenge herself, Maggie becomes a stronger woman and Diaz makes this transformation more subtle than you might imagine.
Shirley MacLaine is also great as Ella, the long-lost grandmother of Maggie and Rose. Maggie initially decides to visit her grandmother for a couple of reasons; she didn't know she was still alive and she wants to bilk her grandmother for any available cash she possibly can. Ella is a smart woman and recognizes this. Because she has a lot of mixed emotions about her relationship with her grandchildren, she lets Maggie stay with her but won't give her or let her steal money from her. She makes Maggie an offer that works for both of them.
Throughout, the supporting characters are very strong. Mark Feuerstein as Simon, Rose's potential suitor is very good. Persistent and, ultimately, charming, he wins Rose over. Yet, the relationship has more depth than this as well. Most films would be content to let the relationship stay at this level. Hanson takes it even further, adding a lot of depth to the story. As the story shifts to Ella's life at the retirement community, we meet a number of the people who live there. This is, perhaps, the best part of the film. The seniors are portrayed as real people, rather than the usual stereotypes. Each of the people is a different, unique person, simply older. As the main characters interact with this group, we learn about them, both young and old, and what they have to offer each other and the world. Ella is courted by another widower at the community, Louis, and they begin a relationship. A friend of Ella's, Mrs. Lefkowitz, uses a motorized wheel chair and Ella's help to get around, but she has a lot to offer and ultimately helps Maggie find her true calling. It is a remarkably even handed portrayal of a demographic so often stereotyped.
The story veers towards the soap opera-ish at times and the film is too long. But the performances more than make up for these two problems.
All in all, "In Her Shoes" is a surprisingly good film. Actually, I am not sure why I was surprised at how good the film was. Director Curtis Hanson hasn't let me down yet.