It’s called a “chick flick,” what 60 years ago was called a “woman’s picture” — aimed at a largely female audience, focused on female characters and likely (though not invariably) directed by a gay filmmaker such as George Cukor, Edmund Goulding or Mitchell Leisen. Not much has changed in the intervening years.
I have no clue as to Hanson’s sexual orientation and he certainly cannot be said to have specialized in this type of film. Here, he comes across as a less-design-conscious Mitchell Leisen (who would never have stood for the hideous blue paint that covers every inch of Shirley MacLaine’s apartment). Since Leisen himself didn’t start out making “women’s pictures,” the comparison is not inapt.
And the results are startlingly refreshing for most of film. Based on a popular book by Jennifer Weiner, Hanson’s film charts the convoluted, sometimes improbable, relationship between sisters Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose Feller (Toni Collette), who seem to share only two things — a name and a shoe size.
Maggie is — to put it diplomatically — an extrovert, or in blunter terms, a self-indulgent, self-centered, promiscuous drunk who lives off other people and gets what she wants by wiggling her backside. Rose is plainer, self-conscious about her looks, self-sufficient, slightly humorless and a bit of a workaholic — though she has a (literally) closeted wilder side, as evidenced by her Imelda Marcos-like collection of sexy shoes.
The film starts with Maggie at a class reunion where she’s alternating between worshipping the porcelain god and trying to have upright anonymous sex in a bathroom stall. This results in Rose having to pick her up when she finally passes out (evidently a common occurrence) and her stepmother (Candice Azzara, Ocean’s 12) throwing her out, thereby foisting Maggie on Rose. Maggie then proceeds to wear out her welcome — and Rose’s shoes — simply by being the basically unlovely person she is. She finally crosses one line too many by seducing — for no very good reason except she can — Rose’s sometimes boyfriend (Richard Burgi, Cellular).
At this point, Maggie flees to Florida to sponge off her grandmother, Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), whose existence had been kept from both women by their overprotective father (Ken Howard). So Maggie is off to play on the sympathies of a veritable stranger. Rose decides to quit her legal firm and refocus her life now that her sister is out of it.
The bulk of the film then follows their separate progressions and eventual — and inevitable, given the genre — reconciliation. This part of the movie is largely held together by the more interesting sister, Rose, and the performance of Shirley MacLaine as the patented, no-nonsense grandmother. This is also where Shoes — the whole story — starts slightly derailing. Up to this point, we’ve been given no reason to like Maggie, but since she’s played by Cameron Diaz, that has to change. The change is never wholly believable — a few scenes of a blind professor (the legendary Norman Lloyd) getting her beyond her inability to read and grandma refusing to be hoodwinked by Maggie’s standard modus operandi just don’t quite convince us of the granddaughter’s transformation. But the script tells us she has changed — and it’s a testament to Diaz’s personal charm that we buy it at all.
It’s even more a testament to Hanson’s vision of the material that he insists on making us question the wisdom of accepting her regeneration at face value. He’s constrained by the requirements of the plot, but constantly slips in suggestions that the old Maggie is still in there, which is one of the reasons — along with the three lead performances and some sharp dialogue — that In Her Shoes is more compelling than it might appear on the surface. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and some sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke