Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Razor Decision On The Roller Coaster Of Averageness: In Her Shoes

The Good: It’s complicated, read the full review
The Bad: It’s complicated, read the full review
The Basics: In a terrible movie where the characters go from unlikable to likable and back and the plot challenges, then becomes utterly cliche, only some decent acting makes it even bearable.

In Her Shoes is a movie that is possibly the most annoying film I've had to review in a long time. I write this because the movie starts abysmally, has a middle that made me think "I'm glad I stuck it out," then progresses into "saw that coming, saw that coming, saw that coming, isn't this over yet?!" In Her Shoes, in my ratings would be a solid five in the final analysis; perfectly average. This is one of the strongest possible "Not Recommend" movies I've rated in quite some time.

Rose Feller is a lawyer in Philadelphia who one night has a fling with a partner at her firm. That same night, she needs to go to the rescue of her slacker sister, Maggie. Maggie is a pretty generic thieving pain-in-the-butt who has no direction, no manners and is essentially a real thorn in Rose's side. When Maggie has sex with the guy Rose had hooked up with, Rose kicks her to the curb.

What follows then is the story of Rose discovering she enjoys a more simple life walking dogs, dating a nice lawyer from the firm and living without Maggie. Maggie hightails it down to Florida and the grandmother she never knew she had to discover life as a working woman, living in a retirement community figuring out how to play to her strengths. Maggie and Grandmother Ella begin to relate and work together, though Ella comes to want to meet Rose as well. Rose's life becomes complicated when she becomes engaged to Simon, the second lawyer from the firm that she's with, and she begins to feel anxiety over Maggie not even knowing him.

And it all comes together in a kind of predictable, Lifetime, feel-good way that is sure to disappoint virtually any audience.

It did not surprise me to learn that In Her Shoes was based upon a novel by Jennifer Weiner, the story is so involved and the characters are so complicated. The problem with it, though, is that it has the set-up of a novel's complexity but the time frame of a film drama. As a result, there is a lot of build-up, some complicated themes that are underexplored and a resolution that is slapped together in a very predictable, Hollywood fashion.

Perhaps the best way to discuss what works and what does not work about In Her Shoes is to look at the three primary characters: Maggie, Rose and Ella. Maggie is utterly unlikable. For the first hour of the movie, every scene she is in is terrible, she is heartless, inhuman and boring when she's not being a skank. Then she's just cheap. There is nothing redeeming or interesting about Maggie and she drags the movie down with her presence and personality. She makes watching the movie into a loathsome experience that makes the idea of being covered in honey and set loose in a field of dung beetles have some appeal. That's how unpleasant In Her Shoes is when it is focusing on Maggie.

So, even though it does not take long for writers Weiner and Susannah Grant to reveal that Maggie is quasi-literate either through neglect of reading or some learning disability, we have no pity for this boring, slutty sloth. When she begins to work and play to her strengths - helping at the assisted living community, becoming a personal shopper for the seniors and stops drinking and having sex with anyone who moves - she becomes watchable and there are moments she is even likable. Unfortunately, the writers and director Curtis Hanson do not quit while they are ahead. They tack on the generic and obvious, Maggie deals with a death episode as well as the completely predictable reconciliation between Maggie and Rose.

Rose is the heart and soul of the movie and it is her that basically pushes the quality up out of the toilet enough to even make the film seem average. Rose is instantly likable and the audience feels bad for her having to deal with Maggie. Following Maggie's betrayal of her, it's wonderful to see Rose discovering something that satisfies her and makes her happy and sustains her. Simon is a good match for her and, despite how predictable the relationship is, the audience is glad to see her with someone who is so nice and good to her.

And therein lies part of the problem. Simon is a good guy, articulate and emotionally connected enough to tell Rose that he will not marry her if she cannot open up to him. The problem here is that Simon is emotionally connected enough that the things he objects to Rose not opening up to him with are all things that seem like they should have come up long before he proposed. The audience never sees any strain in the relationship until all of a sudden Simon is yelling at Rose about being emotionally withholding. It seems like a non sequitor, especially for characters who seem so genuinely emotionally balanced and connected.

Of course, the counter-argument here is that Rose is not terribly emotionally connected. In scenes with Maggie she is utterly cruel and the viewer is expected to simply say "Maggie has it coming" and she does. What doesn't work is Rose's reaction to Maggie late in the movie. She spends a portion of the movie fretting so much about Rose that it seems to divide her from her fiance and yet when she sees Rose, all of her old anger explodes right out with a whole slew of new vituperative remarks. This sort of erratic behavior makes it hard to stay on Rose's side.

The best and worst of the movie, though, comes in the form of Grandma Ella. Ella is smart enough to recognize Maggie for exactly what she is; a manipulator and a thief. She is cool enough to try to work with Maggie to develop a future for the young woman, which works well. But then, Ella falls completely into Geriatric Romance Plot #115 which demands that whatever senior male around the community expresses interest in her, she will end up with, regardless of chemistry, interest or common interests. Sadly, the viewer is expected to swallow this. The viewer is also expected to swallow the pretty much instant redemption Ella and former-son-in-law Michael achieve with one another upon their first meeting in over twenty years.

Ella's character arc, in combination with Michael's, creates an intriguing and well-assembled theme of the movie. Michael and Ella have very different views of what was right for Ella's daughter, Michael's wife. The movie brilliantly assembles the idea that Michael blames Ella for her problems and Ella blames Michael even though neither ever said anything to that effect. Both blame themselves for not being involved enough and project their fears on the other when talking about the condition Michael's dead wife (Rose and Maggie's mother) suffered. The audience gets this, but there's nothing to open the two of them up to that understanding in the movie and so their instant forgiveness of one another reads as very generic, very false.

Ultimately, the problem with In Her Shoes is in the resolution. Everything comes together in a nice, feel-good way that most anyone can see coming a mile away. In fact, the closest the movie came to making me interested or excited in the latter half hour was in the last few frames of the film. Director Curtis Hanson is sloppy in a way that almost made me interested - and then just bugged me. One of the last shots of the movie has Rose looking out the rear window of a car as she drives away from Maggie. Maggie is standing in the middle of the road and there are lights from a car growing in the distance behind her. I sat up and thought, "Is this truly going to surprise me?!" The camera cuts to a close-up of Maggie and the lights behind her are gone. My hopes that she would be flattened and shock my expectations for this predictable movie were crushed by a director who simply did not notice a car coming when he put the movie together.

Cameron Diaz plays Maggie and her performance is erratic. She is unremarkable both when she is simply easy and drunk and when she is assembled and redeemed. The only time Diaz provides a performance that is interesting is when Maggie is struggling. Diaz clearly conveys Maggie's literacy problem well before it becomes a central issue and that's decent acting. But beyond that, there's nothing distinctive Diaz brings to the role.

Shirley MacLaine is well cast in In Her Shoes and she gives a better performance than in Rumor Has It (reviewed here!). She is likable, complex and her character seems very strong and real. It's a shame the character was not more consistent to give MacLaine more sensible things to do, but here she plays the role dead on for a streetsmart old lady who sees the opportunity to redeem herself for past problems by "saving" Maggie. MacLaine has a bearing and dignity that sells the audience on the part, even when she's simply filling a "type."

It is Toni Collette who rules the movie as Rose. Collette has a vulnerable quality that she expresses through her body language and eyes that is very strong and the audience is able to empathize with. Even when she is delivering venomous lines, Collette makes the viewer believe in her underlying humanity (a vibe we do not get from Maggie) and she keeps the film centered. It's a shame that Collette is forced to deliver lines that suggest that she is not good looking because the bearing and dignity with which Collette carried Maggie makes the character quite attractive. All in all, Toni Collette's performance makes the movie bearable when the film is plodding along over two hours. Her performance is so good that I did not even recognize her from the terrible Little Miss Sunshine.

It's a shame that this movie were not either longer and better developed or less predictable because then it might have been something special. As it is, once Ella comes into the movie after almost forty minutes, once all the pieces are in play, this film becomes so predictable a chimpanzee could have written it and it wouldn't take much more to direct it.

For other works with Toni Collette, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Jesus Henry Christ
About A Boy
Changing Lanes


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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