Director Curtis Hanson has directed “In Her Shoes” in two distinct halves. In the first, a splintered family treads water in its troubles; in the second, they search for and finally find their inner potential. By the time the characters have become who they really are, the audience has become an appreciative rooting section. The movie is neatly divided by the arrival of Shirley MacLaine. In the role of Ella Hirsch, grandmother, she is terrific as the pivot that allows her relatives to work their way out of the family mess.
And what a mess it is. The movie opens with an unpleasant scene of a drunken Maggie (Cameron Diaz) vomiting away both her dignity and a casual boyfriend at a high school reunion. Maggie is the acknowledged family tramp. A housekeeping slob and a drinker, she is a magnet to a host of men attracted by the natural beauty she disguises with spiked heels and as little else as possible. Ejected from the family home by the wicked stepmother, she brings herself and her problems to the apartment of her sister Rose (Toni Collette), a successful, if dowdy lawyer whose job is the only antidote she has to a lonely life. You can easily imagine the fireworks between the two as they build toward the explosion that breaks the family into pieces. “Get out of my life!” Rose screams in frustration.
Maggie disappears; Simon (Mark Feuerstein) steps forcefully into Rose’s life; Shirley MacLaine’s Ella arrives; and the movie starts to bubble. As tart as ever, MacLaine keeps the movie from sinking into sentimentality when it threatens to do just that. She sets the tone for opening up the family conversation at last.
We all know Cameron Diaz can play the dippy blonde, but here she manages to make us aware of a layer of vulnerability just under the surface of her flippancy. This is a woman troubled and sad for good reason, and as this becomes clear, our sympathy for her deepens. She messes up everything she touches including short job stints at The Limited and Wanamaker’s Fragrances. She plays a lovely scene in an assisted living home with a blind, retired professor who shows as much sensitivity to her learning disabilities as she does toward his need to teach. She is a touching mix of strength and inadequacy.
Toni Collete’s Rose, successful though she may be, is also propelled by a deep sense of inferiority that defeats her at every turn. Give Rose a break, and she’ll turn it to dust every time. Like Diaz, Collette conveys a far deeper self than we might expect from what promised to be a frothy comedy. As for Shirley MacLaine, after years of memorable movie roles and a Broadway triumph, her talents are undiminished. After too long an absence, it can be said that this redhead has real promise. Yes, it’s a chick flick - a good one.
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