Curtis Hanson, whose death at 71 was announced today, was a Hollywood director whose work often managed to transcend standard Hollywood fare with a distinctive emotional intelligence and the ability to coax superb performances out of his actors. His tour de force is L A CONFIDENTIAL, in which Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and a superbly scary James Cromwell gave performances as good as any in their career, while Kim Basinger won a Supporting Actress Oscar. It’s film noir in the high Hollywood style, without being pastiche. There was less spectacular fare, like the much admired WONDER BOYS, or Meryl Streep’s excursion into untamed nature in THE RIVER WILD. From 2005, IN HER SHOES stands out for the three great performances by its female leads, and despite being dismissed as lightweight in several quarters, its slow-burn development proves unexpectedly complex and satisfying. Here’s the review I wrote at the time.
IN HER SHOES
OK, it’s real chick flick territory, the story of two sisters so unalike in every way, it’s even difficult to believe they really are related at all. Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is an empty headed party girl, glamorous, jobless, who lives off other people. Rose (Toni Collette) is a high achieving lawyer, brainy, compassionate, sensitive, and, we are supposed to believe, dowdy and unattractive. The only problem here is that while Cameron Diaz is certainly uber-sexy, Toni Collette’s Rose is hardly unattractive either, which downscales the contrast between the two somewhat. All they seem to have in common is a shoe size, on which hangs the rather tangential title of the film. Shoes are very special to Rose, who gets pleasure from buying them because, unlike clothes, they always fit and do not centre on her body shape. She has looked after her sister in all her scrapes and failures, and there is a genuine loving bond between the two, but Maggie goes one step too far when not only does she borrow and ruin Rose’s favourite pair of shoes, but beds her man. So far, so predictable. But two very good performances by these two actresses and the director’s bravery in giving their story time to develop transform this what seems at first a hackneyed tale into a human story that bobs and weaves its way around schmaltz mostly successfully.
A background of family tragedy and mental illness is revealed, and though the inadequate father and his somewhat caricatured second wife do not really ring true, Collette and Diaz are impressively believable, damaged in their different ways. Maggie goes off to Florida to meet her unknown grandmother, Shirley MacLaine, who reminds us what a fine talent she has for understated, naturalistic acting. A bevy of elderly actors, foremost of whom is Francine Beers as Mrs Lefkowitz, provide sparky wit at the retirement village, a background to our discovering the true character of Maggie, who it is revealed has literacy problems, and a self-esteem as low as her sister’s. OK, so maybe being given the confidence to read by a blind, dying professor is verging on the fairytale, but her reading of the fine Elizabeth Bishop poem The Art of Losing is very moving – either it’s a great poem (it is) and a fine performance (it is) or I’m a sucker for sentiment (pass).
Meanwhile Rose has found herself a genuinely nice man, and discovered that there is life outside proving oneself through work. Without the sisterly love she can’t be truly happy, but the reconciliation is not easy. Unfortunately the film goes all Hollywood on us with a final emotional wedding scene, and the second poem is a step too far, but the warmth and emotions generated in general by the film are not to be scorned.
Seen at Cinema Days, Milton Keynes, October 2005