After the one-two-three punch of L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile, it was tempting for a while to think that Curtis Hanson was turning into a major director, even if each blow packed just a little less power than the last. Now I’m starting to wonder if he isn’t more a gifted journeyman, a canny observer with a (usually) keen sense of timing.
I hate to say it, because I love some of Hanson’s films — for a long while, whenever someone asked my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential was my reflexive response — but looking over his career, it often seems that even when he misfires — maybe even more when he misfires — he seems to be choosing his projects based less on creative instincts than according to his reading of the cultural moment. He capitalized on the domestic anxiety of the early ’90s with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, tried to broaden Meryl Streep’s appeal beyond highbrow circles with The River Wild, engineered a revival of film noir with L.A. Confidential, adapted the literary-bestseller-of-the-moment with Wonder Boys and, with 8 Mile, jumped on the Eminem bandwagon at the height of his popularity. And now that “chick lit” has become such a phenomenon that several such titles sit atop the bestseller list on any given week, and the genre has its own regular section in Entertainment Weekly’s book review pages, he’s jumping on that bandwagon.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know a thing about chick lit. I’ve never read Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes or her other novels, Good in Bed, Little Earthquakes, and Goodnight Nobody. Hell, until I started researching this review, I didn’t even know she’d written four books, though I do recall a period when it seemed every second woman in any airport, subway, or bus was required to be holding a copy of Good in Bed.
I’ve never read anything by Helen Fielding or Candace Bushnell, either, and a search at Amazon.com revealed that I hadn’t even heard of most of the other authors identified with the genre. (Though I have read Pride and Prejudice, which one subtitle curiously describes as “the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece,” so there’s that.) Poking around the Internet in search of insight, I came across the following passage in an exegesis on the subject:
Want to read about a woman who wants to lose weight, right a wrong in her life, make new friends, find a new place to live, get ahead in her career, figure out how to fix problems in her life by opening her heart, or get over an ex-boyfriend/husband who has really messed up her life? Try a chick lit book!
Though intended as a general description of the genre, it works just fine when applied specifically to In Her Shoes: Toni Colette’s character, Rose Feller, has a weight problem and is looking for a redress of grievances against her flighty sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz). Fleeing Rose’s wrath, Maggie reunites with their estranged grandmother Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), relocates to a “retirement community for active seniors,” befriends several other residents, and finally finds a job for which she’s suited. Rose, recovering from a betrayal that has left her unable to trust men, meets a preternaturally flawless Mr. Right who eventually wins her confidence. (He’s so perfect he even drives a Prius.) There you have it: the whole shebang. There’s even a scene where several characters sit around watching “Sex and the City” while sipping cosmopolitans.
That’s the kind of movie this is: a contemporary fairy tale larded with borrowed ideas and gratuitous pop-culture references — Rose and Maggie even have a wicked stepmother, the officious, castrating Sydelle (Candice Azzara). The sisters are familiar types, retreads of Bridget Jones and Holly Golightly; the grandmother is a softer version of the dotty-yet-imperious matriarch MacLaine’s been playing, with slight variations, for the last 20 years; and a dark family secret is signified by the “Rosebud”-like word “Honeybun.”
The script is by Susannah Grant, who seems to specialize in just this sort of feminine wish-fulfillment fable, often recycling the same fairy-tale archetypes. Her screenwriting credits include Pocahontas (young girl defies father and culture for the love of handsome white soldier and winds up making peace between their peoples), Ever After (young girl defies wicked stepmother and, with the help of fairy godmother Leonardo da Vinci, wins a prince), 28 Days (young woman with a substance abuse problem and a disapproving older sister finds out that rehab is a great place to meet guys), and Erin Brockovich (young woman discovers that brains + tits = justice).
In Her Shoes is very much in the same vein. Once the basic plot elements are established, only those who have never seen a movie won’t be able to predict the outcomes. Everyone gets exactly the reward or comeuppance they deserve, and every conflict is wrapped up as tidily as a birthday gift. Every genre has its formulas, and these are no worse than most, I guess; the problem is the way their application subtly perpetuates the insidious notion that it’s the love or respect of men that a woman must have to be whole. Rose and Maggie both find men who overlook their flaws and see them for the special little gems they really are, but no woman of marriageable age is ever shown as happy, sane, satisfied, or successful except as reflected in a man’s eyes.
There are pleasures, though, in the performances of the leads, which are consistently deft and frequently touching, and in the often clever dialogue, particularly that given to Mrs. Lefkowitz (Francine Beers), an older friend of Ella’s whose shrewdness seems to be the only thing keeping her frail body going. As Amy, Rose’s cynical, advice-giving best friend (essentially the same sidekick role she played in Melinda and Melinda), Brooke Smith is also sharp-tongued and sly. But as much fun as the actors are to watch, there is a typically Hollywood disconnect in the casting. Aside from a couple of Jamaican extras, pretty much every character onscreen is obviously intended to be Jewish, but they’ve given the major roles to glamorous shiksas. (C’mon Hollywood, can’t you throw some work Winona Ryder’s way?) This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the other characters’ Jewishness were incidental but, of course, it’s not. Sydelle, in particular, is an especially nasty stereotype of the loud, manipulative Jewish mother, but a number of minor characters, too, are hoary grotesques out of some old Catskills routine, making the leads look like three nice Catholic girls who somehow stumbled into the wrong family. When, at the obligatory wedding finale, the groom stomped the wine glass, I half expected Diaz to ask what that was all about.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()