As a pair of sisters from Philadelphia, Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette) couldn't be more different. A promiscuous slob with a chip on her shoulder, Maggie continually rejects ways to improve her life, much to the frustration of mousy lawyer Rose. When the trust between the two is breached severely, Maggie runs away to Florida to find Ella (Shirley MacLaine), her long-lost grandmother. Finding themselves finally free of each other, both Rose and Maggie begin new lives in which they explore their potential for happiness and realize their dreams of independence.
As repellant a term as "chick flick" is, "In Her Shoes" (IMDb listing) is an extraordinary example of the misunderstood genre. Not since "Terms of Endearment" or "Steel Magnolias" has there been a film that has delved so respectfully into the high-wire act known as sisterhood, and the perpetual thin ice that makes up family intimacy.
Adapted from the book by Jennifer Weiner, "Shoes" is a wild literary beast to tame. Featuring a thick crowd of characters and situations, as well as thorny emotions and disabilities, the film really has its work cut out for itself. Director Curtis Hanson appears to be just the right person for the job. Coming after taming Eminem in the delightful "8 Mile," Hanson continues on his path as one of the more appealing and restrained filmmakers around. "Shoes" gives Hanson exactly what he's good at: a plethora of characters with intricate problems to sort out, and a troupe of actors suited up to play. Building off Terry Stacey's seductively crisp cinematography, Hanson is firing on all pistons with this material, adroitly navigating the rolling waves of the problematic narrative. In what initially seems impossible, Hanson is able to join the various dramatic puzzle pieces together in ways that don't seem jarring or incomprehensible.
Hanson is aided greatly by screenwriter Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich," "Ever After"), who captures with accuracy the characters and the pestering buzzing of their consciences. "Shoes" initially arranges itself as formulaic conflict film about sisters, with Grant cherry-picking Weiner's plot in order to get Maggie and Rose on opposite sides of the fence. Once the rift is established (in equally delicious and heartbreaking ways), the script separates the sisters and Grant then takes the opportunity to examine personal growth and familial responsibility. No role in the film is a one-note cardboard cutout. Grant gives all the characters a chance to explain themselves, and to empty out their heads and rummage through the mess. Through Rose's body issues and mistrust of people, Maggie's draining impetuous personality and learning disabilities (making a rare appearance in a feature film), and Ella's guilt and surprise dealing with her newfound granddaughters, Grant is miraculous in her ability to make time for everybody, and her respect for each personality is what keeps "Shoes" so captivating and entertaining.
Also keeping the film striking and ingratiating are the performances, which form a sort of hat trick of Oscar-worthy acting in a picture that welcomes the effort. Cameron Diaz nails her iffy role as the high-maintenance youngster, combining the ugly side of being twentysomething (partying, neglect) with fierce personal demons she can't escape. Bluntly, this is the best work Diaz has ever committed to film. Toni Collette matches Diaz note for note, taking a more intimate, internalized journey of responsibility and frustration. To see these characters grow up and realize their value is a thing of acting beauty.
Usually cast as shrill, unbearable characters, Shirley MacLaine is given the gift of vulnerability with her role as the loving grandmother who never got the chance to be one. MacLaine has the least screentime of the three actresses, but she makes up for it with a caring, regretful performance that offsets all the selfish, youthful problems around her. She's wonderful, boosting the film's intense acting effort even higher.
At 130 minutes, and cursed with a shameful marketing campaign, "Shoes" comes off like a massive chore to sit through, but I assure you, I swear to you, the film is anything but. Hanson, Grant, and the cast have really built a small film of unusual competency and distinct feminine understanding, making every minute count in the process. "In Her Shoes" is carefully arranged and beautifully made all around. Don't skip it.
Filmfodder Grade: A