A slow journey into the deepest heart of the smart-versus-pretty conundrum, Curtis Hanson's "In Her Shoes" explores the benighted bond between a frumpish workaholic lawyer named Rose Feller (Toni Collette) and her beautiful, reckless sex monkey of a sister, Maggie (Cameron Diaz). With nothing in common but their shoe size and low self-esteem, the sisters must break apart to come together again, redeemed by the love of a good man and a wise grandmother.
Adapted by Susannah Grant from the novel by Jennifer Weiner, "In Her Shoes" is a curious movie, hovering for upward of two hours between light and dark, truth and fake uplift, menace and mollycoddling. The effect is that of a storm cloud strapped into something constricting by Victoria's Secret. There's a dark-edged honesty to Collette, Diaz and Shirley MacLaine's performances that chafes against the source story's eagerness to please. Maybe it has to do with Collette and Diaz being slightly older than the sisters in the book, or with the fact that Hanson -- who directed "Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile" -- keeps sending the sisters down dark emotional alleyways of the soul only to have sunny days and saviors waiting around the corner.
Successful-but-lonely Rose is marveling at her handsome boss' surprise presence in her bed when she gets a late-night phone call from a stranger. Maggie has passed out drunk at her high school reunion, and Rose needs to come pick her up. When she tries to take Maggie back to their father's house, however, she's barred at the door by their evil stepmother, who insists Rose take her sister home with her. A few days later, Maggie returns to her dad's to collect her things and one last time rifle through his desk drawers, where she comes across a stack of unopened birthday cards, evidence of a grandmother they hadn't known existed. Back at Rose's apartment, she helps herself to expensive shoes (carefully preserved beauty totems that Rose never wears), ice cream and other stuff sisters know better than to borrow. Evicted yet again, she boards a bus to Florida without a word to anyone. Rose, meanwhile, quits her job and stumbles into a gig walking dogs, gaining a new boyfriend (Mark Feuerstein) in the process.
Not having read the novel, I suspect that Maggie is written as some sort of irresponsible blithe spirit with issues. But Diaz plays her as a scary, vulpine mess. Her cool, grifter amorality is as shocking as her coarse, cynical sex appeal, both of which make it nearly impossible to buy her as Rose's sister in any context other than tragedy. She's too lost, too far gone for the comfy middle-class parameters of the movie, with its dear-old-dads, wisecracking biddies and puppy-eyed Prince Charmings.
Collette's goofy charm goes a long way in making Rose as likable as she's meant to be, but under scrutiny the character doesn't hold up. She never owns up to her resentment of her sister, nor does she ever overcome it enough to look for her. Even after the movie has carefully established that Maggie is a heavy drinker who may be mentally ill and is definitely a danger to herself, Rose never tells Simon that Maggie is missing, nor does she tell her father or, for that matter, the cops. Grandma Ella (MacLaine), meanwhile, has taken Maggie on as a project, finding her a gig as a hospice worker and helping her start a business as a personal shopper for the assisted-living set. In light of the sisters' past, however, the notion that Ella "did her best" by her motherless granddaughters by sending annual birthday cards, though it is pushed like a tanking stock to a database of AARP subscribers, is a tough sell.
The ups and downs of sibling love between damaged opposites have been poignantly explored in movies like Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count On Me." And Sandra Goldbacher's little-seen "Me Without You," the story of a lifelong best friendship between a shy, serious girl, blind to her own appeal, and her flashy, needy neighbor, who sees it all too clearly, explores similar themes to profound effect. But "In Her Shoes" isn't interested in parsing the mysteries of the love-hate relationship as much as it is invested (literally) in selling the message that everything's going to be OK. For Rose, the path to redemption is paved with love and all the rewards attendant to reduced hindquarters. For Maggie, it's littered with newly found self-respect, wisdom and, well, yes, poetry. But "In Her Shoes" treats love like a pretty accessory to be stored in a plastic box and shoved in the back of a closet when it proves impractical. And ultimately, it's too self-conscious of its role in the marketplace and too hamstrung by its source material to risk being honest at the expense of being liked.
'In Her Shoes'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, language and some sexual content
Times guidelines: Some mild sexuality and adult subject matter
FOX 2000 Pictures presents a Scott Free/Deuce Three Production. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay by Susannah Grant. Based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner. Producers Ridley Scott, Carol Fenelon, Lisa Ellzey, Curtis Hanson. Executive producer Tony Scott. Director of photography Terry Stacey. Production designer Dan Davis. Film editors Craig Kitson, Lisa Zeno Churgin. Costume designer Sophie de Rakoff. Composer Mark Isham. Running time: 131 minutes.
In general release.