Film Reviews

Goy Gevalt

Director Curtis Hanson, a journeyman only recently bestowed the title of Great Director, has already made his horror movie (1973's The Arousers), his kiddy action comedy (1980's The Little Dragons), his teen sex romp (1983's Losin' It), his handful of Hitchcock riffs (1987's The Bedroom Window, 1990's Bad Influence, and 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), his theme-park water ride (1994's The River Wild), his film noir (1997's L.A. Confidential), and his Karate Kid homage (2002's 8 Mile, starring Eminem in the Ralph Macchio role).

The only thing missing from his filmography, which includes the wondrously earthy Wonder Boys, is his science-fiction epic; not any more. In Her Shoes, yet one more Hanson movie that began as a best seller, fills that void, offering up a two-hour-plus tale in which we're to believe that Cali gal Cameron Diaz and Aussie Toni Collette are not only sisters, but also very Jewish. Lest you think this unimportant, this bit of kosher chick-lit is taught in a Jewish Studies course at the University of Pennsylvania, alongside works by Roth and Bellow. I believe the phrase you're looking for is oy vey.

Alas, if that were the movie's greatest problem, it could overcome such a lousy pairing; James Caan and Al Pacino didn't look like brothers either, after all. But the movie's a bust in myriad ways, especially because almost every scene possesses the oily feel of manipulation and condescension, as though Hanson and screenwriter Susannah Grant are ordering you to Cry here! and Laugh here! and Cry and laugh here! You can almost hear them shouting at you over the soundtrack, even during those quiet, slow-mo moments filled with heart-breaking/gut-wrenching epiphanies -- say, that scene in which an illiterate Diaz stutters and stammers her way through Elizabeth Bishop's beloved self-help poem "One Art" at the urging of a dying prof.

Since Diaz is featured prominently on the poster, reducing Collette to an afterthought in much the same way the actual film does, let us begin with her. In this adaptation of Jennifer Weiner's novel about two diametrically opposite sisters who love to hate to love to hate each other, Diaz is cast, of course, as the wild sister, Maggie Feller. We know she is wild because when first we encounter her, she's drunkenly shtupping a guy in the bathroom stall during their 10th high-school reunion. It's a faux pas from which Maggie can't recover, and she's forced to call her upright-citizen sister Rose (Collette) for a ride. Rose is peeved -- she's in the middle of cuddling with her law-firm boss, after their first night of courteous sex -- but she's not altogether unfamiliar with the situation. This isn't the first time she's had to rescue her vomit-covered sis from a night of toilet friggin'.

But Diaz is less a wild child than an immature one -- a dunce, in short, who apparently never learned to read, since her mother was unstable, heavily medicated, and, eventually, quite dead. (The film never explains precisely why Maggie is illiterate, perhaps because there can be no good explanation for why a bright girl from a nice middle-class Jewish home can't read.) She's a party girl who seems to have misplaced all her invitations; the nuttiest thing Maggie does is skip off to Manhattan for an MTV audition, which she flubs after not being able to read the TelePrompTer. She's also wholly unlikable: Of all the men she could screw, Maggie chooses to bed Rose's boss in Rose's bed, which sends Rose into a tizzy and Maggie off to Florida, to find the grandmother she believed dead.

In Her Shoes is one of those horrid Hollywood movies in which an actress like Collette gains a handful of pounds, wears only a little makeup, and is constantly referred to as frumpy and fat; this is self-help cinema for pretty people who don't think they're pretty enough. These aren't characters, but caricatures of the Driven Woman Who Chose to Ditch Her Stressful Day Job to Walk Dogs and Her Feral Younger Sister Who Moves In With an Old Lady and Discovers Responsibility After All. This is a song you've heard a thousand times before, and every note rings false -- save for those performed by Shirley MacLaine as the girls' grandmother, Ella Hirsch, who lives in an idyllic retirement community populated by cheerful old folks who apparently believe Cocoon was a documentary. The movie only sparkles when Ella kibitzes with her pals, Mrs. Lefkowitz (Francine Beers) and Mr. Feldman (Jerry Adler), the latter of whom has a little thing for Ella. One can't help but ache at the irony: a movie about young women who are just figuring out their dreary lives are empty and drab, 'til at long last it moves into the old folks' home and finds its soul. But studios will never make a movie about MacLaine's character; she can only be a footnote to a younger woman's story, a guest in her own home.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky