2½ stars (out of four)
A great big wad of chick-lit gum, "In Her Shoes" gets by on the skill of its players, like so many Hollywood movies based on beach-bound or airport-found bestsellers before it. Director Curtis Hanson, who made "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile," three successfully wrought pictures with nothing in common, appears determined to make every sort of movie there is. Now he's made his Dames movie, featuring a prima cast elevating material so obvious and on-the-nose, you may leave the theater with both a smile and a nosebleed.
The sharpest onscreen work comes from Shirley MacLaine, who plays the wise Florida grandmother Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette never knew they had. If this surprises youif MacLaine has, in your cheap and petty mind, become associated more with notions of hambone familiarity than qualitywe've identified the real issue: You have a cheap and petty mind.
The film industry has long had a thing for gamines, at least before they become suited for grandmother roles. In MacLaine's salad days she was just attractive enough in the pixie vein to fulfill entrenched notions of how someone needed to look to land a comic ingenue or auxiliary ingenue part. Yet her comic timing was just distinctive enough, in that wry, can't-be-bothered way, to get her noticed. A one-time Broadway understudy for Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" a half-century ago, MacLaine eventually won an Academy Award for chewin' it up, spittin' it out and chewin' it up again in "Terms of Endearment." But make no mistake. She's giving a more relaxed and truer performance here.
The paperback reissue cover of "In Her Shoes" depicts two selling points. One is a pair of expensive shoes, footwear favored by one of the characters. The other is an expensive smile, belonging to Diaz. In the movie, adapted from Jennifer Weiner's book by Susannah Grant, Diaz plays Maggie, trashed out but incandescently so. She's a borderline-alcoholic wreck with very, very little in common with her sensible, slightly overweight attorney sister, Rose, played by Collette.
Rose sleeps with the office horndog and pays for it. She has only a closetful of mostly unworn shoes for solace. Maggie, a longtime albatross around her sister's neck, ends up in the sack with the horndog and poof: "Friends. Rivals. Sisters." Premise. Summarized.
A family secret, having to do with Rose and Maggie's mother who died long ago, haunts the adult sisters. Dad (Ken Howard) has remarried to a punchline of a cardboard stepmother (Candice Azzara). For the perceived benefit of his daughters he has kept mum regarding the existence of Ella (MacLaine), grandmother to Rose and Maggie, who lives in a Florida seniors community.
Maggie pays a visit to Ella, down where the "Golden Girls" quips won't quit. Rose ditches lawyering to start a dog-walking business. She also finds Mr. Right with Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein). Does the fragmented extended family become whole? Why would I give that away?
The material is what it is. No one picks up a book like this or goes to the film version to be surprised. They partake in order to be comforted that things can work out, against the odds, even among Friends. Rivals. Sisters. Collette, a fearsomely talented performer; goes for broke every second, ensuring that each look, take, close-up and reaction shot grab the audience's attention. (In "The Sixth Sense," she did a lot less, to far greater effect.) Collette working in high gear, I suspect, is what it took for MacLaine's underplaying instincts to fully activate. She makes Ella an intriguingly watchful character, drawn to but wary of her estranged granddaughters.
In a scene designed to cure Maggie of her dyslexia in one easy lesson, Norman Lloyd portrays a retired, blind literature professor. The set-up is false; the actor is true. With that silken, melancholy voice of his, Lloyd makes the most of what he has. (His character replaces the scenes in the book devoted to Maggie's thwarted college experiment.) Diaz brings some feeling to her scene with Lloyd, but the movie's so far on Maggie's side to begin with, her ultimate triumph of the human spirit and selfhood feels too easy.
MacLaine takes the cake simply by letting the cake come to her, and by playing in a lower key than usual. Her warmth, which in some films seems a matter of twinky manufacture rather than naturally occuring substance, is at once measured and undeniable here. "In Her Shoes" doesn't leave much to subtlety or chance, but MacLaine, the one-time gamine, proves she is not just a star. She's an actress.
'In Her Shoes'
Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Susannah Grant; cinematography by Terry Stacey; production design by Dan Davis; music by Mark Isham; edited by Craig Kitson and Lisa Zeno Churgin; produced by Ridley Scott, Carol Fenelon, Lisa Ellzey and Curtis Hanson. A Fox 2000 Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2: 10. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, language and some sexual content).
Maggie - Cameron Diaz
Rose - Toni Collette
Ella - Shirley MacLaine
Simon - Mark Feuerstein
Michael - Ken Howard
Sydelle - Candice Azzara