Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Sibling rivalry taken to another level

Director Curtis Hanson turns his hand to different genre

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Is there anything that the director Curtis Hanson can't do when it comes to the movies -- any genre, any story, any setup? In his newest film, In Her Shoes, the director of such tonally and thematically dissimilar films as 8 Mile and Wonder Boys wrests a richly textured story of love from a seemingly unlikely source, Jennifer Weiner's breezy best-selling fiction about two sisters -- played in the film by Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette -- engaged in an epic battle of the heart, a fight waged mostly against each other and their own best interests.

If Hanson's accomplishment seems surprising it's because the director, recently better known for testosterone-charged stories, has turned his attention to a book that belongs to that subgenre of fiction known as chick lit. Like Bridget Jones's Diary, In Her Shoes sails along on perfunctory prose and the kind of you-go-girl affirmations best summed up by the great Stuart Smalley: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." In contrast to Helen Fielding, the creator of Bridget Jones, however, Weiner does not regard the hapless heroines of In Her Shoes with contempt; each time her ostensible ugly duckling enters, she feels no need to remind us of the swishing sound of her thighs moving together in embarrassed consort.

That nominal ugly duckling here is Rose (Collette), the elder of the two Feller sisters. At once walking, talking caricatures and recognizably real, the sisters each have their own overdetermined, gender-specific cross to bear: Maggie, played by Diaz, is pretty, blond and slight as a whippet, the kind of woman who sashays around indoors in heels and not much else. Maggie is also unabashedly frisky (she sashays in front of a guy, and with the lights blazing), a sexual savant who happens to be learning disabled: she looks hot but can barely read. Mousy and blowsy Rose, meanwhile, wears plus-size everything and lives in spinsterish near-isolation, a slave to her Philadelphia law firm and graced with only one platonic friend (Brooke Smith) to call her own.

Film Notes:

In Her Shoes

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Starring: Cameron Diaz (Maggie Feller), Toni Collette (Rose Feller), Shirley MacLaine (Ella Hirsch), Mark Feuerstein (Simon Stein), Brooke Smith (Amy), Richard Burgi (Jim Danvers)

Running time: 130 minutes

Taiwan Release: today


Susannah Grant's adaptation of Weiner's book stays true to its core, which involves a massive blowout between the sisters and the introduction of their long-estranged grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine). Along the way, boyfriends come and go, including a couple of prospects for Rose (winningly played by Richard Burgi and especially Mark Feuerstein), and Maggie lands in Florida for a dangerously cute interlude amid a geriatric gaggle. It is no great surprise that Hanson, a sensitive director of actors who can corral bulls (think Russell Crowe in LA Confidential) and their retiring opposites (Kim Basinger in the same film), elicits exceptional performances from his leads, including MacLaine and Diaz, neither of whom is often called on to deliver a real performance and rarely volunteers the same.

Still, even with Hanson's abilities in full view from the get-go it takes a while to realize that there is more here than quips and designer sling-backs, largely because the story's schematic design proves such a distraction. Like the book, the film splits fairly evenly into separate stories that, as each character becomes self-actualized, eventually weave together. As a consequence, Hanson is forced to spend a lot of time toggling between Philadelphia -- where Rose nearly blooms, almost withers, only to bloom once more -- and Florida, where Maggie and Ella circle each other warily, trying to find common ground. More programmatic than organic, all this shuttling back and forth grows wearisome then irritating, especially because Rose's transformation turns out to be so much more complexly realized than Maggie's.

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