There are so many genuinely sweet and funny moments in Curtis Hanson’s new movie, “In Her Shoes,” that the sappy predictability of its finale leaves you near shock.
Based on Jennifer Weiner’s chick-lit 2002 best-seller, it’s a very odd choice for the director of “L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile.” The harsh edges of Hanson’s previous movies have been sandpapered away, but not in an obnoxious way — that is, until the 130-minute film is almost over.
Cameron Diaz delivers what may be the strongest performance of her career, even if her character, the loutish beauty Maggie, doesn’t quite add up. The script by Susannah Grant keeps insisting that Maggie and her more successful sister Rose (Toni Collette) are soulmates.
Maggie is a selfish monster who takes advantage of Rose, a Philadelphia attorney, when she moves in with her. When Rose finds Maggie sleeping with her new boyfriend, she throws them both out, and Maggie heads to Florida to find their longlost maternal grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine). After mooching off Ella for awhile, Maggie suddenly grows a conscience.
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Rose has dropped out of her law firm to take up dog-walking as a profession. Almost immediately she runs into a former co-worker, Simon (Mark Feuerstein), who worships her and once tried to lure her away from her cheating lover. When they announce their engagement, Rose’s father (Ken Howard) and stepmother (Candice Azzara) couldn’t be happier — though the latter eventually reveals herself as the nastiest stepmother since “Cinderella.”
Azzara all but invites the audience to hiss whenever she appears, and that’s exactly the way the role has been written. The more menacing she becomes, the dopier the movie seems. After starting out on a reasonably adult level, it finally retreats into adolescent revenge fantasies and unlikely character switcheroos. Especially hard to buy is a subplot that explains why Rose and Maggie don’t know much about Ella.
Nevertheless, for most of its running time, “In Her Shoes” is smart and surprising. It’s a terrific vehicle for Diaz, whose gift for comedy is now matched by a clear talent for dramatic fireworks, and Collette, an Australian actress who finally gets an American movie that demonstrates what she can do with a complex leading role. As for MacLaine, this may be the richest part she’s had since she won an Oscar for playing another prickly mother in “Terms of Endearment.”
Feuerstein, who stole “The Muse” from Sharon Stone and Albert Brooks, is utterly charming in what may be an even tougher role: The Perfect Boyfriend. There’s almost nothing wrong with Simon, he’s almost impossibly considerate and appealing (well, he does have a habit of ordering for others in restaurants), yet Rose keeps discouraging him.
But he keeps coming back and finding ways to make himself indispensable. In the movie’s funniest and most romantic scene, Simon reads a bodice-ripper aloud to Rose. At last she can’t resist him, and you can only wonder what took her so long.