Any movie that can redeem Cameron Diaz from her recent run of Charlie’s Angels rump-shaking and Shirley MacLaine from the increasingly campy, wealthy-bag-lady eccentricity she’s developed onscreen and in interviews—well, that’s a movie that must be working extra hard. Yet director Curtis Hanson makes In Her Shoes seem like the lightest, most airy little film that deserves a big audience. Add to this an energetic starring role for Toni Collette, the spiky Australian actress who’s never seemed destined for American stardom, and In Her Shoes starts looking like a rainbow-colored miracle.
Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) has taken Jennifer Weiner’s novel of the same name—a chick-lit touchstone—and transformed its sitcommy characters into wondrously affecting, funny humans. Working with actors wildly diverse in style, looks, and manner, Hanson makes their family dynamic believable: Diaz and Collette play different-as-night-and-day sisters, MacLaine the grandmother they barely knew they had.
Hanson and his invaluable adapter, screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), trust the potent emotions and notions about family that lie beneath Weiner’s tale of a successful yet primly insecure Philadelphia lawyer (Collette), her ditzy sexpot of a younger sister (Diaz), and the way they find happiness via the sharp-tongued wisdom of a widowed retiree in Florida (MacLaine). The opening scenes are at once familiar and freshly snappy. In a Philadelphia shot in rich brown and cobalt-blue, Diaz’s unemployed Maggie moves in with older sister Rose (Collette) after being booted out of the house of her father and stepmother. The sisters’ utter physical dissimilarity won’t bother you after the first few minutes, because Collette and Diaz are so good at conveying the long-standing grievances between these siblings: Rose can’t abide Maggie’s aging-party-girl irresponsibility, which extends beyond mere sloppy housekeeping to sleeping with Rose’s caddish boyfriend (Richard Burgi). When Collette’s Rose yells, “You ruin everything, Maggie!,” there’s anguish mixed with anger in her moan.
Maggie blows an audition to become an MTV V.J. because she can’t read the TelePrompTer—a dead giveaway in this kind of comedy-drama that the wacky wastrel is an undiagnosed dyslexic. Soon after, she comes upon some unopened birthday cards her father has kept hidden for years: They’re from MacLaine’s Ella, who’s been estranged from the family to the extent that neither Maggie nor Rose knew she existed. Sensing a meal ticket, Maggie leaves Philly for the pastel pinks and oranges of Florida, and the shift in color scheme signals a new jolt of energy. She hits it off with her feisty granny and Ella’s senior-citizen friends (Hanson gives even the obligatory shots of old geezers ogling a bikini’d Diaz as she waggles her way to the assisted-living-center pool a brisk randiness); she volunteers in the local hospital and overcomes her reading problem by parsing Elizabeth Bishop poems with an ailing, blind elder (the indomitable Norman Lloyd). Meanwhile, back in Philly, enough of Maggie’s free-spiritedness has rubbed off on Rose that she quits her dank law firm and finds happiness both as a dog-walker and with a sterling new boyfriend (the earnest Mark Feuerstein).
By the time Maggie and Rose are reunited down in Florida, forming an affectionately wisecracking threesome with Ella, In Her Shoes achieves a kind of fairy-tale bliss. I think one reason this movie is so appealing is that it’s the anti–Sex and the City—its earnestness and relative lack of rank bawdiness or cynicism seem novel in the present pop-culture atmosphere. Beyond that, though, there’s the unconscious pleasure a moviegoer gets when you’re in thrall to a filmmaker who’s working at such a high yet unpretentious level. It’s what people got from Clint Eastwood in last year’s Million Dollar Baby, and what Hanson accomplishes here. When superb craftsmanship, discipline, and risk-taking (toning down Diaz and MacLaine; treating Collette as a desirous leading lady, much the way Felicity Huffman has gone against-the-female-star-grain in Desperate Housewives) are applied to accessible, even frivolous material, the results can be deeply pleasurable. In Her Shoes isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s the best Saturday-night movie millions of people are going to go to.