Well-heeled actresses can't save flat `Shoes'

MovieReview C+

October 07, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Set in Philadelphia and Florida, In Her Shoes is a fractured contemporary Cinderella story with first-rate movie craftsmanship and no real fairy-tale lift to it. It boasts one wicked stepmother (Candice Azzara) and two sisters suffering from low self-esteem: Maggie (Cameron Diaz), a feckless beauty who panics at the prospect of reading, and Rose (Toni Collette), a zaftig lawyer who overachieves her way straight out of life's pleasures, including healthy relationships with men.

Instead of a fairy godmother, we get an understanding grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) who drops into the story would-be magically. Instead of chattering rodents and trilling birds performing healing wizardry, we have dogs that help Rose get in shape as they pull her up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the wise, droll residents at the grandmother's assisted-living complex, who help Maggie discover that she has a brain.

Instead of a Prince Charming, Rose eventually lands a Jewish prince (Mark Feuerstein), a mensch of a lawyer with a taste for fine and fun things - the Philadelphia 76ers as well as international cuisine. Instead of a glass slipper, Rose fills her closet with designer pumps that Maggie loves to borrow. What's important, of course, is by the end they're able to see themselves in each other's shoes.

After L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and 8 Mile, the director, Curtis Hanson, is the best all-rounder in the business. Still, when he and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) try to extract "the truth" from Jennifer Weiner's proficient best-seller, all they wind up with is a variation on "you'll laugh, you'll cry" entertainment. In Her Shoes is the "feel-bad-then-feel-better" film of 2005.

The whole movie has a therapeutic aura. Even the most daring episode - Maggie bedding the first man in Rose's recent life - isn't messy or foul enough. It functions as the breaking point that separates the siblings. Then each grows to realize that sisterhood is all-powerful.

Hanson directs with psychological acuity, using a hand-held camera to reflect Maggie's unmoored, amoral state. The movie is never more alive than when she's stealing from her stepmother or sister. And the performers (including a smart, restrained MacLaine) are as good as you can get in these soap-operetta circumstances.

Collette turns refreshingly brisk and game for experience when Rose pulls her life together. Dramatically, it's a mistake to let her grow depressed again about her sister just so she and Maggie can achieve full closure. Diaz gives Maggie a psychologically stripped demeanor that's extraordinarily moving. But the mundane working-out of Maggie's (and everybody else's) destiny tends to dissipate Diaz's impact. The moviemakers' sense of responsibility becomes a drawback. The running time passes the two-hour mark so almost everyone can achieve self-realization, then become part of a group hug.

It's a sign of Hanson's taste that he resists playing the Rocky fanfare when Rose mounts those famous art museum steps. But a little more Rocky-like vulgarity would have pepped things up.

In Her Shoes includes Diaz giving touching readings of poetry by Elizabeth Bishop and e.e. cummings. It's absolutely the classiest big-screen version of chick lit we're ever likely to see. But it still has all the lasting flavor of a Chiclet.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

In Her Shoes (20th Century Fox)

Starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

Directed by Curtis Hanson.

Rated PG-13.

Time 130 minutes

Review C+

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