When we first meet the Feller sisters of “In Her Shoes,” Rose is embarrassed to be wearing boring cotton underpants during one of her very rare intimate encounters with a man, while Maggie is having drunken sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall at her 10-year high school reunion.
This is not a scene of American family life that Norman Rockwell would have painted, but Curtis Hanson — director of “Wonder Boys,” “8 Mile” and now this — paints it remarkably well. Working from a script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), adapted from Jennifer Weiner’s novel, Hanson has made a quiet movie, funny but not wacky or garish, and with serious feelings beneath it.
The first act puts the two sisters together. Rose (Toni Collette) is a depressed lawyer with barely a hint of a social life, recently advanced upon by a fellow attorney (Richard Burgi), but we all know how inter-office things usually go. Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl, the black sheep of the family, unable (or unwilling) to hold a job, big on alcohol and petty theft and a serious fan of casual sex. Kicked out of her father’s house by her stepmom (Candice Azzara), Maggie crashes at Rose’s place, an Odd Couple situation fraught with the utmost peril.
Rose has long resented Maggie’s wanton ways, while Maggie insists anyone who questions her behavior needs to lighten up. Maggie wears Rose’s shoes and brings home a dog to live in the apartment. Bad enough Rose’s social and professional lives are unraveling without Maggie there to make things worse.
Act two separates them. All these years they believed their maternal grandmother was dead, just like their mother, but then Maggie learns otherwise and heads to Miami to meet/mooch off the old gal. She is Ella (Shirley MacLaine), an active senior in a retirement community who is delighted, albeit guardedly, to have contact from one of her granddaughters after so many years of exile by her son-in-law (Ken Howard).
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Rose has taken a leave of absence from the law firm. The stress of losing her lover, her sister and her dignity all at once was too much, and now she has settled into a simple little existence walking dogs for a living. She runs into a lawyer from her firm, Simon (Mark Feuerstein), and they begin to date. He is perfect for her; the only question is whether she is too screwed up for him.
In act three, Rose and Maggie are reunited, Rose meets Ella, and a succession of healing of decades-old rifts begins: between Rose and Maggie, between Ella and the girls’ father, between the girls and their long-dead mother.
The movie can be deconstructed easily and stripped down to its basic elements — it’s rather obvious how Maggie and Rose wind up switching places (“In Her Shoes,” anyone?), and the last several scenes, yes, seem like nothing more than a series of reconciliations. But credit Hanson and the actresses for avoiding maudlin tears and melodramatic outbursts. Collette’s forte is plain, emotionally damaged women (see “The Sixth Sense” and “About a Boy”) with Rose as no exception, and Diaz has rarely portrayed a human — an actual learning, growing human — so well.
Does it push your buttons? Maybe a little. But mostly it feels genuine. It’s funny in a serious way and serious in a funny way, and it has an emotional truth to it. I think it will ring true, at least some aspect of it, for nearly everyone who sees it.
A- (2 hrs., 9 min.; )