Monday, November 14, 2005

Review - In Her Shoes

What is it about women and shoes? Why do so many members of the fairer sex have such a fixation on footwear? And why do they own so many pairs which they could never hope to get much wear out of? It’s a peculiarly feminine phenomenon, and In Her Shoes doesn’t make any attempt to answer this particular mystery. Instead, it uses shoes as a common bond between two sisters who only have the size of their feet in common.

“Clothes never look good, food just makes me fatter, shoes always fit” explains Rose (Toni Collette) when defending her propensity for buying shoes she’ll never get around to wearing. Rose is an uptight, workaholic lawyer who spends little time on her appearance and is insecure about her perceived unattractiveness to the opposite sex. Her younger sister Maggie (played by Cameron Diaz in full bimbo mode) is Rose’s polar opposite. She’s a leggy, slutty blonde who still lives at home, has never managed to hold down a job and lives her life through a series of drunken one-night stands.

After her latest binge, Maggie is ejected from the family home and is forced to move in with her sister. Rose grits her teeth and somehow manages to put up with Maggie’s messy, lazy behaviour and her half-hearted attempts at job hunting; but after a selfish and spiteful act breaks her heart, Rose finally sends her sister packing. Away from each other the pair begin to learn lessons about responsibility and making the most of life, and both of them begin to regret parting on such bad terms.

To many viewers this plot synopsis may sound absolutely ghastly, and in the wrong hands In Her Shoes certainly could have been sentimental Hollywood hogwash of the worst kind. Fortunately, this adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s bestseller has fallen into the particularly safe hands of Curtis Hanson.

Hanson’s early films, while always well-crafted and performed with distinction, never gave us a hint that he would be capable of adapting James Ellroy’s mammoth crime novel LA Confidential into one of the best films of the 90’s. Since then he has taken his time over his projects, directing two pictures which seem completely at odds with one another (the rambling comedy
Wonder Boys and the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile), and In Her Shoes marks yet another successful change of pace for Hanson. Under his careful guidance In Her Shoes belies its origins to develop into a warm, smart and insightful treat.

Hanson keeps a firm grip on Susannah Grant’s screenplay; maintaining an understated, consistent tone which is a refreshing change for this kind of film. The characters are all given time to breath thanks to Hanson’s leisurely pacing and he never resorts to grand gestures or lets sentiment overwhelm the film. Instead, we are invited to enjoy a mature, intelligent film which completely focuses its attention on the characters at the heart of the story.

Those characters are particularly well-drawn here and the film also benefits from perfect casting. Toni Collette is reliably fine as Rose, offering a generous and completely convincing performance. Collette’s judgement is invariably sound, she doesn’t ever overplay whether she’s the neurotic lawyer we meet at the start of the film or the much happier and freer person she gradually becomes. As Maggie, Diaz is more than just the sexy sister and her display here is her best and most rounded work since Being John Malkovich. The pair are also believable as sisters, conveying the sibling love and rivalry with sensitivity and skill, and the film’s emotion is mostly derived from this relationship. But the film would still be little more than an above average comedy-drama if Hanson didn’t have his ace up his sleeve.

When Maggie is kicked out by Rose she heads to Miami and tracks down the Grandmother she’s only just discovered she had. Ella lives in a retirement community and is played by the redoubtable Shirley MacLaine, in a role that has Oscar stamped all over it. Maggie intends to play on her Gran’s guilt for missing out on so much of her life and milk her for as much money as she can, but Ella won’t crack; and Maclaine’s dry, sardonic delivery of some choice lines remains a delight. It would have been easy to paint a soft portrait of the retirement community as a place chock full of crotchety residents churning out homespun wisdom, but Hanson won’t patronise them and instead this witty section of the film has a streak of devilment running through it. Besides, you try patronising Shirley MacLaine on this form.

In Her Shoes comes in at 130 minutes and you can feel the wheels churning a little in the final third. Hanson and Grant seem to be endeavouring to tie up every individual story in a nice bow before the curtain falls and some scenes leading up to the climax feel a tad contrived and laboured. Nevertheless, I was willing to forgive it for much by that stage. In Her Shoes doesn’t try to do anything you haven’t seen before but it does it with a wit, understanding and genuine warmth that feels a little special.

Many of the scenes herein are potentially slushy and clichéd, but Hanson’s assured direction makes them feel real and fresh. The ending is a predictably happy affair which may require a hankie or two, but we never feel like we’re being manipulated into shedding a tear. We are moved by In Her Shoes because we’ve come to know these characters and care for them. We’ve seen who they were and we’ve watched them develop into somebody new. We’ve walked a mile in their shoes.