Cameron Diaz is turning out to be one hell of an actress. Her blonde bimbo persona in films like Charlie’s Angels and its sequel make it hard to take her seriously as an actress, yet countering her jiggly appearance in those campy actioners are some strong performances. Her psycho-girlfriend-from-Hell was the only good thing about the tedious Vanilla Sky. And her work in There’s Something About Mary and My Best Friend’s Wedding proved she’s an ideal romantic comedienne. In Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes (based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner), she may have found her best role yet.
Diaz is Maggie, a self-destructive, undereducated party girl who can’t hold a job and continually leeches off of her sister, Rose (Toni Collette) and her parents. Rose couldn’t be more opposite from Maggie: she’s intellectual, cynical and frumpy (in the film’s early scenes, which presumably were shot last, Collette gained some extra weight to accentuate her character’s dowdiness). The story deals with the two sisters’ love-hate relationship and how it is affected by the discovery of a relative they never knew they had (Shirley MacLaine).
Early on, I couldn’t help asking, “Why does the pretty one have to be dumb, while the smart one is ugly and fat?” Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that these two women bought into the stereotypes of themselves and one of the film’s strengths is watching them slowly rediscover and reinvent themselves as unique, independent women. Director Curtis Hanson is in good form here, with a project that could not be more different from his last directorial effort, 8 Mile (which, let’s be honest, was basically a testosterone version of Flashdance). Hanson proved he has a gift with low-key comedy-dramas with 2000’s Wonder Boys and he’s in equally good form here. Hanson’s sense of pacing is pitch-perfect and the film uses its settings to communicate a lot about the characters.
Hanson also gets strong performances from his actors. Diaz is simply terrific, taking a potentially unsympathetic character (she does some pretty horrible things) and making her engaging. Her gradual, believable character transformation is the highlight of the film. Collette, in some ways, has the tougher role and, early on, Rose comes off as too much of a hardass. Fortunately, Mark Feuerstein enters the story as a co-worker of Rose’s who pursues her fearlessly, despite her protestations. Feuerstein (who has languished in forgettable sitcoms like Good Morning, Miami) is a find and his chemistry with Collette is great. He brings out a warmth in Collette’s performance that the character of Rose desperately needs and he manages to play a genuinely nice guy without being bland. MacLaine is lovely in a supporting role that’s kind of a change of pace for her. Her character is reserved and repressed, the exact opposite of the emotional tornadoes we’re used to MacLaine playing, and she makes the character believable and interesting. There are also some fantastic scenes with old timer Norman Lloyd, in a small, but crucial role.
The film’s drawbacks are mostly in Susannah Grant’s script. The film is in many ways predictable and conventional, yet there is an original point of view that keeps the story fresh and on track. The only other drawback is that, through a key plot point, Diaz and Collette spend most of the film apart. While their individual growth is fun to watch, it limits our investment in the sister’s relationship because we simply don’t see them together much. That said, the film is a treat (and one that was unfortunately overlooked at the box office during its theatrical run last fall). Some might write this off as a “chick flick,” but what makes In Her Shoes stand out is its unique point of view: it is a love story between two sisters.
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