October 13, 2005

In Her Shoes3 1/2 Stars

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In Her Shoes is a snapshot of life cropped with a little bit of melodrama and extraordinary circumstances. There are few, if any, moments that remind you that you are watching a production, and, indeed, the movie draws strength from its realism. What struck me most was the plausibility of the storyline and its ability to connect the audience with its characters. It is the recognizable gift cards, the dirty apartments, the cheap sentiments, the beautiful people, the bridal showers, and the bitterness and frustration that comprise the tangible realism that is the substance of our existence. After all, isn’t that what life is about?

In Her Shoes is chiefly about three characters – two sisters and their grandmother – and how their fates and happiness are inexorably linked with one another’s. Rose (Toni Collette) and Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) are sisters whose mother died in a car crash while they were young, leaving them in the care of their father and stepmother, but mostly to themselves. Their maternal grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was given the duty of taking care of the children by her daughter, but she was gradually pushed away by the father and finally relegated to the phantom role of writing birthday cards and stuffing them with five-dollar bills.

Rose is an unattractive (or so she thinks), high-strung, workaholic lawyer living in Philadelphia who has a hard time finding dates and has spent her whole life being miserable. Maggie is a beautiful (and she’s sure of it), laid-back, non-working, promiscuous drifter who has also most likely spent her life being miserable though she was never aware of it. The grandmother is a widow who works in a “retirement center for active seniors” in Florida; she is depressed with the guilt that she feels for failing to have taken an active role in her grandchildren’s lives.

Maggie and Rose have a conflictual relationship, and both envy aspects of each other’s lives. Maggie gets kicked out from one house after another – from her father’s by her stepmother for coming home drunk late at night, and from her Rose’s for sleeping with her sister’s boyfriend. When Maggie discovers the birthday cards that her grandmother sent, and which were hidden by her father, she decides to travel to Florida to freeload off of yet another person in the family. The grandmother uses the opportunity to both set Maggie straight and kindle a relationship with her granddaughter, thus fulfilling the promise she made to her daughter and filling the void that has been widening for decades. She sends an invitation and airline tickets to Rose, thus completing the circle, and when the three woman are reunited, the long course towards redemption, forgiveness, peace and happiness begins.

Unlike other films, you cannot see the hand that tugs at your heartstrings, but it is there – gently pulling with just enough force to let the flow of the narrative, and not overblown melodrama, carry you along in the range of emotions. MacLaine, the film veteran, is expert in her role as the tough, doting grandmother, but it is Collette that stands out as the film’s star. She executes the role with believability, dignity, emotion and sincerity, and she could be an Oscar contender. Diaz, who is not a very good actor, is the weak link in the chain. The film also suffers from being too long, building up to a climax that never seems to happen and ending with a resolution that is scattershot and unfaithful to the film’s two-hour tonal setup.

On the whole, the film is a strong display of humanity and the dynamics of family relationships. It doesn’t shirk sentimentality and nor does it inflate it; instead, the film is steeped in the realism of the everyday person’s life. We feel like we know these people and their situations, and we share many of their same hopes and fears. We can be placed – excuse the phrasing – in their shoes.

Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Contributor