The first review I spotted of this movie praised it as "fine" and "mature". Such superlatives couched in the language of wine connoisseurship should serve to alert us to two things: firstly, that this is a film trying to pass itself off as "quality" material; and secondly, that it is trying to closely emulate a recent product of quality that was, in fact, about wine connoisseurship, namely Sideways (2004).
In Her Shoes is roughly the female version of Sideways, and it works hard to capture the same upmarket audience. However, director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 1997) and writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brokovich, 2000) begin from a more downmarket premise that could have served Bette Midler in her Beaches (1988) era.
Rose (Toni Collette) and Maggie (Cameron Diaz) are sisters at war. In every aspect of their characters, they are opposites. Rose is ultra-professional, organised, frumpy, dissatisfied, sex-starved. Maggie is a party girl, attractive, dyslexic, lacks ambition. Handily for the purposes of kick-starting the plot, Maggie is also keen to sleep with any available guy – including Rose's latest boyfriend.
Rose and Maggie will, for the middle stretch of the film, go on separate paths of self-discovery. Rose gives up her high-flying job and starts walking dogs. Maggie heads off to a residential community for seniors to meet the grandmother she has never known, Ella (Shirley MacLaine). Finally, all these characters will gather to hash out the problems of their past – with abundant gestures of female bonding.
It is axiomatic in a plot like this that the central characters undergo a "changing places" experience: Rose must learn to loosen up and enjoy life, like Maggie; while Maggie must learn to be more responsible, like Rose. Hanson, however, is at pains to ensure that we do not mistake his film for any old "chick flick", even though it would have worked perfectly well on that level.
Instead, he pours on the markers of quality – and that means, in the present context of American cinema, that he tries to make an ostentatiously "novelistic" or literary film. So In Her Shoes begins with a voice-over narration that spells out everything that, a decade or two ago, Hanson would have let us surmise from his images; and he indulges in dreadfully heavy-handed metaphors like Rose's vast shoe collection, which cues the central theme of each sister being "in each other's shoes".
Like Sideways, this is a comparatively slow and talky film, awash with "serious" music and moody lighting effects. Only now and then, when the editing quickens, dancing begins or MacLaine (in an excellent performance) delivers her sassy lines in an old-style, crackling rhythm, does one glimpse the unpretentious, enjoyable pop comedy that In Her Shoes could so easily have been.
© Adrian Martin October 2005