THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Based on the best-selling novel by Jennifer Weiner, In Her Shoes is the story of two sisters and the grandmother they never knew they had. Cameron Diaz plays Maggie Feller, a young woman given to boozing, stealing, conniving, and using her sexuality to get what she wants. Maggie is, in essence, a train wreck who manages to pull everyone around her into her own chaos. The most frequent victim is older sister Rose (Toni Collette), a lawyer who doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin. She is obsessed with buying shoes because, unlike clothes or men, they “always fit.” After Maggie is kicked out of the house by her stern step-mother, Rose takes her in. The situation grows tense when Maggie fails to hold a job and steals money from her sister. Then a major fight takes place (I won’t tell you what stems it) and an exasperated Rose reaches her breaking point, ordering Maggie to get out.

Around this time, Maggie finds birthday cards sent years before by the grandmother she was told had died. With nowhere else to go, she heads to Florida and ends up staying with Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine) in a retirement community. Ella correctly assumes that Maggie is there looking for money. However, she tries to fulfill her grandmotherly duty of “looking out for” the girl and helping her get on track. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Rose quits her job and begins a romance with Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein). They get engaged but the fact that she hasn’t heard from Maggie in months troubles her. Once she tracks down her sister, Rose also goes to Florida to meet Ella. It is there that these three women finally address the pink elephant in the middle of the room. All have been profoundly affected by the death of Ella’s daughter (Rose and Maggie’s mother) years before. Each has handled the grief in a different way, which explains a lot about their individual personalities and problems.

One thing needs to be made clear: In Her Shoes is not a “chick flick.” It’s a movie where the three main characters happen to be women, but it has none of the qualities that are typically associated with a chick flick. Instead, it’s a slice-of-life drama that men will find just as identifiable as women. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing some of the messier parts of family relationships: the rivalries, the grudges, the occasional judgment when one family member thinks another isn’t living his/her life the “right” way. There have been hundreds of films about feuding families, but many of them only pay lip service to the theme of familial conflict. This one really explores the way pain and love are often hopelessly intertwined in relationships.

Director Curtis Hanson also directed 8 Mile, Wonder Boys and L.A. Confidential. All his movies are, at some level, examinations of people struggling to find themselves (and to connect with others) under difficult circumstances. Hanson also has a gift for assembling first-rate casts who make the material shine. In Her Shoes boasts three solid lead performances, as well as a handful of memorable supporting ones. Cameron Diaz does perhaps the best work of her career as Maggie. Part of Diaz’s fundamental appeal in movies has been her bubbly personality. In playing such a troubled character, she takes our expectation of a “Cameron Diaz role” and turns it on its ear. The actress is surprisingly effective playing such a troubled character. Toni Collette is also outstanding. What I like about her as an actress is that she can get inside the skin of whoever she’s playing; you feel like you’re watching a real person living a real life. Shirley MacLaine is the anchor of the film, and I like how she keeps Ella low-key, even as all this drama is unfolding around her. Like a lot of grandmothers, Ella has seen a lot and very little fazes her.

I’m not going to say much about what actually happens in the story because what’s really important is that each of the main characters changes in some important way. Here are three women who all live in the shadow of a tragic event. Two have lost a mother; the other has lost a daughter. This event has affected them in ways they recognize, but it has also affected them in ways they are unaware of. Maggie has spun off track, living a life that is as reckless as it is unfulfilling. Rose has become too insecure, always fearing that the worst is going to happen. She also suffers from a near-debilitating sense of low self-esteem. Ella, meanwhile, has essentially fled. She lives a quiet life in another state and doesn’t answer questions about her family. Over the course of the movie, all three women must face some uncomfortable truths about themselves. Watching these actresses (all of whom give nomination-worthy performances) is a joy. I also liked Ken Howard, who plays Maggie and Rose’s father, and Francine Beers, who brings much comic relief as Ella’s straight-talking best friend.

Movies that capture the essence of real-life always appeal to me. In Her Shoes is a great example of a film that achieves this. It has moments of humor, moments of sadness, and moments of truth. Shoes are a common metaphor in the story, for good reason. Sometimes a pair of shoes fits just right. That pair may not always be appropriate for every occasion, but you just know that you need to have them. Families are the same way. Maggie, Rose, and Ella learn how to fit well with each other, no matter what happens. Just as importantly, they learn how to feel comfortable with themselves.

( 1/2 out of four)

In Her Shoes is rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and some sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.

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