About midway through In Her Shoes we see Rose Feller (Toni Collette, always a delight), semi-professional dogwalker, being yanked down the streets of Philadelphia by a team of mismatched pooches. It’s a good metaphor for this film, which is propelled by several different stories at once, and some are livelier than others.
That’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing, of course, and there were many in the audience who were happy-teary puddles by the end of the film. A great majority of that audience segment was female, and many of them were wearing red hats
. If you don’t fit that category, approach with caution.
The first and best storyline concerns Rose, the older of two sisters who have nothing in common except their taste in shoes. A deft sequence during the opening titles shows Rose fumbling a stack of files, and as her boss helps her pick them up, he signals his romantic intentions. Astonishment and delight play over Rose’s plain features. Hats off, red or not, to Collette for having the courage to be homely. This is a woman capable of being quite lovely, but with just the right lighting and makeup, she can convincingly achieve the opposite. A later scene, in which she lies in bed red-eyed and snuffly with tears, is particularly compelling. There used to be a saying about New Orleans’ unadorned restaurants: local diners want their atmosphere on the plate. With Toni Collette, the talent is on the plate.
As Rose is beginning a dream-come-true romance, her sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is at her ten-year high-school reunion, staggering drunk and groping with a stranger in a toilet stall. She dry heaves into the bowl and then turns to nuzzle the guy, who recoils from her breath. This is a nifty beginning, dispelling fears that the story line would follow finger-wagging stereotype: uptight, moralistic sister learns a lesson from free-spirited, artistic sister. Rose is proved cool, according to current mores, when we see her in bed with her sleeping boss. She’s trying to take a photo of him with her cell phone without waking him (“This kind of thing never happens to me. The lawyer in me wants to document it.”) when she gets a call to pick up Maggie, who is still drunk, still sleazy, and ungrateful to boot.
Rose’s story, then, is about her quest for true love, while Maggie has other things going on: She has a spotty employment history, has trouble reading, and is beginning to get those crows’ feet that signal the passage from hottie to pathetic. (There’s enough prancing, scanty-dressed hottie, though, to keep the men dragged to this movie from being completely bored.) Maggie’s story is about her growth toward adult responsibility, and it’s not as original as Rose’s, though still moderately interesting. The misfire in her character, however, is that Maggie is kind of a creep: She rifles through others’ drawers looking for cash, destroys Rose’s treasured belongings, “borrows” someone’s pet dog and then abandons him with her sister, and generally uses and abuses people without a backward glance. What’s wrong with her is more than dyslexia.
The third story has to do with the sisters’ grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine), whom they have not seen for 20 years; Ella is the grieving mother of the girls’ half-mad mom, who died in a mysterious car wreck 20 years before. We meet Ella when Maggie, after a series of catastrophes, bolts town and shows up on her doorstep. Suddenly we’re in The Golden Girls, a Florida-Jewish version, in which a group of white-haired ladies are presumably hilarious, just standing there. A miniscule, gravelly lady in a scooter-chair, making wisecracks about sex, is the most hilarious of all. This part of the movie is, mostly, agony. MacLaine doesn’t help it out, keeping a face so straight that it might as well be laminated. When she tells Maggie not to smoke because “you have a family history of lung cancer,” Maggie retorts, “I have a family history of car wrecks, too. Does that mean I shouldn’t drive?” Lines like that are what make you think Twinkle Booty needs an exorcist, not a literacy coach.
It probably won’t spoil the plot if I tell you that there’s a happy ending, and everyone ends up reconciled, beaming, and teary-eyed. For my money, you could excise the Maggie and Ella portions of the movie, and just spend more time with Rose. That’s the kind of comment, though, that gets one flailed by red hats.
One last plus to this movie: the guy who eventually wins Rose’s heart turns out to be a much more interesting character than we’d have a right to expect from this kind of breezy, busy movie. According to the recent Leo Burnett Man Study, half of America’s men feel that their role in society is unclear. Do women want them dolled by remedial “Queer Eye” personal groomers? Or do they want a plaid-shirted, stubbly “Earl”? There’s uncharted distance between fop and caveman, metrosexual and retrosexual, yet that’s where most men live. In “In Her Shoes,” Simon (Mark Feuerstein) hits a mark in the middle that is surprisingly appealing, and the character holds his own on-screen despite the big-name ladies’ firepower. Simon has the listening skills women crave and expert culinary taste, yet his guy creds are vindicated by enthusiastic basketball fandom (though perhaps it’s too much to have him actually giving advice to the Sixers’ teammates, while they nod as insight dawns). Most of all, he’s in charge. When he and Rose begin to go horizontal, she nervously clicks off the lamp; he turns it on again. After a pause, she once again tries to hide her flaws in darkness; he looks at her firmly as he once again lights the lamp. What women want in men, even more than plucked eyebrows, is manly confidence. In a realm where examples are so scarce that half of the male population is confused, Simon is illuminating.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.