The Ugly Duckling and the Trampy Swan: In Her Shoes (2005)

Adapted from a bestselling novel by Jennifer Weiner, In Her Shoes skirts the edge of being a sentimental “Sex and the City”-influenced sisters-bonding-together-with- the-long-lost-grandma weepy chick flick, but it consistently surprised me.

The film opens with Cameron Diaz as Maggie Feller seducing a young man in the bathroom at her high school reunion. Not much of a stretch for her, but then she ruins the mood by abruptly vomiting. At the same time, her brainiac sister Rose (Toni Collette) has landed a lawyer from her firm in Philadelphia. She’s so thrilled to have a man in her bed, she takes his picture while he’s asleep just to have some evidence of their tryst. While the attractive Maggie can’t keep a job because she is near-illiterate, fun-loving, and irresponsible, plain Rose has to suffer a degradingly one-sided office romance. Pretty soon, we learn that Maggie also likes to steal money from the dresser drawers of whoever’s house she’s crashing in, usually her sister Rose’s. When she also whimsically steals Rose’s lawyer for a one-night stand, Rose kicks her out, and since Maggie can’t stand her evil WASPish stepmother, she has no place to go.

The film seems to play to the stereotypes of the bespectacled intellectual and the dumb blond, but its witty script keeps resisting convention except for a tendency to get therapeutic. Director Curtis Hanson has directed an unusual range of films that include the uber-noir LA Confidential and the skillfully grungy 8 Mile, but here he brings a nastier side to the material that makes it work. In his world, a wedding shower can be a vicious put-down of the bride-to-be. While directors often cut away from scenes too quickly to keep up with teenage boys’ attention spans, Hanson gives his actors time to inhabit a scene, and the script is funny enough to offset its occasional soap opera plot twists.

I had wondered if Cameron Diaz has been slumming recently. She can be a gifted comic actress, but the Charlie’s Angels series threatened to turn her into a cartoon, and she made a good choice here to play a failure. Once her character gets booted out of Philadelphia, she flits down to a retirement community in Miami to try to mooch off of her long lost grandmother, Ella Hirsh (played by Shirley MacLaine). Suddenly, after all of the winter-time greys and browns of Philadelphia, the movie gets sunny and surreally pastel, with odd phalanxes of retirees doing synchronized Tai Chi exercises in the distance. Maggie starts sunbathing by the pool with a bunch of flummoxed older men looking on, and Shirley MacLaine pulls off the difficult trick of creating a meaningful character halfway into a picture. At first blandly happy to have her granddaughter appear out of nowhere, Ella quickly catches on to Maggie’s tendency to steal. She exposes Maggie’s deceit, and then offers to match every dollar she earns with a local job as a nurse’s assistant. Oddly enough, Maggie finds a kind of redemption amongst what she calls “the retirement community for active seniors,” and the geriatric creepiness nicely counterbalances a new romance Rose starts up back in Philadelphia.

In Her Shoes is engrossing, funny, and clear-eyed about sibling relations and the damage a broken family can inflict on its children, even as they reach their thirties. Rose cautions her sister at one point that “middle-aged tramps” are not attractive, and yet Maggie has an impulsive, hedonistic side that Rose eventually can learn from. And it was nice to see Shirley MacLaine put aside her reincarnation theories and return to form as a woman wise to her granddaughter’s manipulations.