The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - In Her Shoes

Originally published 10/7/05
Full review behind the jump

In Her Shoes

: Curtis Hanson
: Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner
: Ridley Scott, Lisa Ellzey, Curtis Hanson, Carol Fenelson
: Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Feuerstein, Anson Mount, Jerry Adler, Francine Beers, Norman Lloyd, Candice Azzara, Ken Howard

It wouldn’t be effective marketing to say that
In Her Shoes, the adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s novel, is from the director that brought you 8 Mile. But it’s true. Equally true is that you wouldn’t have advertised 8 Mile as being from the director of Wonder Boys. And you might not have predicted the director of all three also made L.A. Confidential.

If I could think of a highest compliment for Curtis Hanson, it’s that he is our most professional filmmaker working, a serious movie-lover who creates movies we in turn love by treating familiar genres with care and attention. We’ve seen many movies where lonely women lament their condition, or talk about their feelings and old family secrets over tea by day and cosmos by night. But you haven’t seen one this good in awhile. By giving his characters the space to become their flawed and full selves, Hanson (working from a tart script by Erin Brockovich scribe Susannah Grant) delivers a movie which is not perhaps as compelling as those other films, but more charming than you might have predicted.

You must dispel the notion that this is a movie about shoes, although they play a role. They line the walls of Rose Feller’s closet, stylish designer shoes for every mood and situation. Rose (Toni Collette) is an attorney in Philadelphia, successful but ground under. When she looks in the mirror she sees only a woman with plain features and a few extra pounds on, so whatever spurs her to buy those shoes, the passion for them dissipates before the occasion arises to actually wear them. That Collette the actress is capable of looking perfectly stunning in films like The Hours, or perfectly blue-collar in The Sixth Sense, or perfectly manic-depressive in About a Boy (with different accents for each) just underlines how her vanity-free, seamless transformations from role to role make her something like the Australian Meryl Streep.

Two guests will join her in her tasteful apartment one night – one wanted and unexpected, one expected but unwanted. First is Jim (Richard Burgi), a handsome partner at her firm who has finally noticed her. Then, as he sleeps and Rose stares at him like he’ll turn into a pumpkin if she takes her eyes away, she gets a phone call and resignedly bundles up to go fetch guest number two.

Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is Rose’s younger sister, an aimless stunner who likes drinking and men and stealing as many of Rose’s shoes as she can. She’s 28 now, has never held a steady job, and her stepmother (Candace Azzara) has just thrown her out of the family home. Rose isn’t eager to offer her couch, but we find out that looking out for her prettier little sister is a habit and burden of long standing.

In the shallow version of this story that would be enough backstory but In Her Shoes delves deeper, and shows what Maggie’s bad habits are fearfully masking. The Cameron Diaz of Charlie’s Angels can handle seductiveness, sprightly energy and booty-shaking on auto-pilot – the role of Maggie calls on something more vulnerable from her, not in the big moments where tears flow or voices rise, but in those moments where she tries to conceal and you can see the flash of desperation and need.

Having the smooth but led-by-his-genitals Jim and the wayward Maggie under one roof doesn’t end well, and the two sisters are driven apart. In their separation they’re finally going to learn things about each other. Rose leaves the firm, accidentally starts a dog-walking career, and navigates a startling new relationship with an ex-colleague (Mark Feuerstein). And Maggie discovers a grandmother who was not unknown but gone so long she’s been forgotten. Ella Hirsch (Shirley Maclaine) lives in a “retirement community for active seniors” in Florida, and when Maggie shows up on her doorstep Ella perceives what’s going on with more clarity than even Maggie; because Ella raised Maggie’s mother, and sees familiar traits that bring up bad memories.

This is the raw material of the movie, and it is not the best means of communicating the movie’s charm. The charm comes in expressions, and gestures – like a sweet battle-of-wills played out over a lamp cord – and in the way Curtis Hanson treats the obsessions with shoes and out-of-the-way restaurants with genuine affection. He lets the characters be who they are and, not without difficulty, find their new happiness. Key to Maggie’s is a friendship she strikes up with a blind man known only as The Professor, played with crisp authority by the 91-year-old Norman Lloyd. Lloyd’s resume is worth a second’s expansion – in his twenties he joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre stage company, he played the villain Frank Fry in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, where he fell from the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and was one of the main directors of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I bring it up because the relaxed polish of Lloyd is the hallmark of the old Hollywood for which he serves as an effective ambassador. Hanson is unabashedly enthusiastic about the products of the classic studio system, where a working director had to move from genre to genre with ease. For that you needed a pure approach, one that understood the fundamentals of pacing and storytelling, how to get that extra level from your actors, and how to treat your material with dignity no matter what label might be stuck on it. It’s that talent which helps him elevate In Her Shoes into more than just a “chick flick”. Maybe it’s too saccharine in the final analysis to stand with the likes of Terms of Endearment, but when good things happen to the characters, you smile without effort. That’s a success.


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