'In Her Shoes': A Couple of Clodhoppers

Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette) have nothing in common but size 8 feet.
Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and Rose (Toni Collette) have nothing in common but size 8 feet. (By Sidney Baldwin -- 20Th Century Fox Via Associated Press)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 2005

There's no greater blow to dignity than a broken stiletto heel.

If you're looking for one transcendental truth from "In Her Shoes," well, there's your fridge sticker. The snapped-off appendage -- whose dramatic significance has to do with one sister's disregard for the other -- is one of the few things you can believe in Curtis Hanson's drama. You can see for yourself that the darn thing is broken. Most everything else in this movie -- aside from the ever-surprising Toni Collette -- is deeply inauthentic, cobbled-together Hollywood hokum. There'd be nothing wrong with this if the film 'fessed up to its kitschy soul. Instead, it pretends to be the high-minded drama it's not.

Adapted from Jennifer Weiner's 2002 novel of the same name, "In Her Shoes" is about Rose (Collette) and Maggie (Cameron Diaz), sisters whose relationship has been on the verge of explosion since childhood. The truth of what happened back then comes in tantalizing hints -- a mother who was killed in a car accident; a stepmother they dislike; a beloved dog called Honey Bun who gave the girls that "one perfect day." Meanwhile, we witness the interplay between the two siblings whose character differences are so polarized they could be called Pro and Con.

Rose, the older, was always the more responsible sister and, it's clear, her role hasn't changed. A junior partner for a Philadelphia law firm, she makes good money, has her own home, and always seems to be bailing out Maggie, a party girl who has never had a steady job and borrows (even steals) money. When we meet Maggie, she's having a drunken sexual encounter with an old schoolmate at her 10-year high school reunion. When that goes awry (don't ask), she ends up penniless and miserable on Rose's sofa -- again.

Rose, anxious to get her sister out of her life, forces Maggie to look for a job. It's bad enough that Maggie blows a potential video-jockey job by flunking a teleprompter reading test. (This is where we learn, Movie of the Week style, that she has a reading problem.) It's worse that Rose's car gets towed thanks to Maggie's unpaid tickets, and that Maggie breaks Rose's favorite shoe and uses gum to repair the heel. But the real killer is the stolen boyfriend.

Maggie's never been short of men, the one advantage she has over Rose. So when Rose finally lands her smooth-operating boss Jim (Richard Burgi) and Maggie casually seduces him, that's the end of the sisters' relationship.

"You ruin everything," says Rose, ordering Maggie out of her life for good.

This should be the movie's most crucial moment. We've entered new, dark territory. But instead of intensifying things, the movie takes a frustrating walkabout. The sisters spin off in different directions -- they end up more than 1,200 miles apart, in fact -- to find their truer selves. And we're stuck watching dueling subplots.

Rose quits the law firm, finds bliss in freelance dog walking, and begins to entertain the notion that her former workmate, Simon (Mark Feuerstein), might just be Mr. Right. If only she could open up about her bothersome sister! If only she could leave the light on when they make love! Meanwhile, Maggie takes the bus to Florida to find their estranged grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine). The two grow close, Maggie straightens out and even starts her own geriatric fashion consulting business.

Pretty girlie stuff for Hanson, a director known for male-centric dramas such as "Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile," who has taken on a project in which the revelations are Oprah-ful rather than action-oriented, the gags come from TV sitcom hell, and a sisterly hug is the only conceivable climax. The result, unfortunately, is that he and screenwriter Susannah Grant (who penned "Erin Brockovich") are creatively snookered in by the genre and its conventions.

The sisters, for instance, aren't two individuals with intriguing similarities and differences. They're glamour-mag case studies -- their life-management issues practically written across their foreheads. Rose and Maggie's father (Ken Howard) is married to a one-dimensional stepmother (Candice Azzara) who's only short a broomstick. And the less said about Francine Beers's shamelessly pandering turn as Ella's quippy retirement-home pal, Ms. Lefkowitz, the better.

As for Rose's aspiring lifemate Simon: He loves sushi, knows his wines, considers a Caribbean cafe his favorite hideaway and knows how to talk offense-defense with the homeboys at Sixers games. Impossibly wonderful, he joins the ranks of the unreal too.

Speaking of ranks, Collette can fully expect to end up on the short list come Oscar time. She imbues Rose with far more presence than her self-esteem-challenged, control-freakish caricature deserves. Diaz's animated ebullience as Maggie would probably register if she hadn't already used these qualities for every other role in her career.

But the quiet grace award surely goes to MacLaine, whose performance is a tutorial on how to make the most of small gestures. When an ardent suitor summons the courage to ask her to dance, Ella looks at him with seemingly aloof regard. Then she squares her shoulders, tips her head back, and follows him to the dance floor. In one deft movement, she produces one of the movie's funniest moments. In a movie as exasperatingly drawn out as this, your best survival strategy is to count its passing blessings.

In Her Shoes (131 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes, profanity and some sexual content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company