A self-absorbed hotsy-totsy party girl with no place to live is forced to sleep on the couch of her prim disapproving lawyer sister, and soon they discover a cache of old Christmas cards that reveals a grandmother in Florida they never knew existed.
A family is united.
Tears are shed.
A femme-ploitation flick?
A testosterone-deficient pix?
A tea-and-honey toddy?
A cute-dogs-and-shoes film?
Nothing quite works.
So earlier this week the repellent phrase "chick flick" was officially accepted into the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Let the conspiracy theories begin, because whether this was unintentionally announced the same week Curtis Hanson's very entertaining In Her Shoes opens, or Twentieth Century Fox pulled off the ultimate marketing coup - it's a poignant way of alluding to the only picture that ever gave the chick-flick genre a decent name.
Can you think of another?
A truly affecting one?
Well, here is a great one about those two feuding sisters, played by Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette - backed by a performance from Shirley MacLaine that isn't campy or eccentric. I'm as surprised you are: Imagine Sideways for supermodels. And the biggest (but far from the only) reason it works is because it was directed by Hanson, whose last few movies suggest nothing so much as an old studio hand who still believes even the most abused types of pictures deserve to be made with both distinction and accessibility: He gave underdog flicks a newfound intensity with 8 Mile and found a way to make a dark, devastating police procedural in the California sun for the remarkable L.A. Confidential.
His career is just as remarkable. After a decade of forgettable B-thrillers like The River Wild, and with nothing left to do but play the game by its boring rules, upsetting expectations became Hanson's admirable metier. But I have to admit: His willingness to work within one of the traditionally laziest and most shallow studio graveyards looked like a step back - at best, a depressing surrender to the sorts of pictures even A-list filmmakers get offered these days.
What I forgot was the satisfaction you can get from seeing a director work at the top of his game without pretense. In Her Shoes is no masterpiece but it does what studio movies don't do very often: It leaves you feeling buzzed and entertained and not talked down to - a reminder of how much fun it can be watch a light frivolous film made with taste.
Which is a miracle considering the film is not only stuck with the derogatory "chick flick" label, but the novel by Jennifer Weiner from which it's adapted has become something like Patient Zero of the chick-lit movement. The details alone sound so cloying, you expect a parody: There are shoes, cute dogs, wisecracking old ladies, sisters who couldn't be more dissimilar, a romance, family secrets, and Cameron Diaz with undiagnosed dyslexia.
Plus, Elizabeth Bishop poems, and it all ends with a wedding.
A tough swallow, I realize.
But Hanson avoids a sitcom by trusting the potent truths about families and allowing paper-thin characters to become flesh - and by refusing to sink into sentiment. Of course, tears well up, but the emotions come out of the characters, and not the blatant manipulation of our (or their) emotions.
At times, with a visceral anguish, Diaz and Collette get across that simmering love-hate thing that comes with being related to people who refuse to behave the way you think is in their best interest. If the film is somewhat schematic in how it makes them total opposites, the actors are not: Diaz plays Maggie as a woman who has coasted on sexual magnetism for maybe the last time, and Collette as Rose, her stiff sister, doesn't necessarily come to peace with her sibling.
It's similar in a way to L.A. Confidential and how Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe do not necessarily respect each other more when it's over. Instead, they recognize how the other, far from one note, contains layers - the possibility of change is there, and so is the heartbreaking thought nobody ever does.
You see, there's nothing innately sugary or cheap about movies and books with the "chick" label; indeed, the label itself is so cheap what we think is a chick-flick plot would apply to both Pride and Prejudice and Shrek. These are stories told in a confiding manner. Their biggest issue is often a character who must choose between personal independence and a relationship. Women don't even need to be the focus: The Shawshank Redemption, which takes place in a prison, is a chick flick in every fashion - just without women.
What makes the form so grating to so many, I think, is not the casts or stories but the tip-toey way they're often handled. Hanson is nothing if not earnest, and even a little hard-nosed, with a situation that would normally be treated to a Sex and the City wink and a few final hugs. There's a chilliness to MacLaine here that's necessary and not entirely defrosted - and it's not cynicism you see. Collette, who plays frumpy, is allowed to be the beauty she is, and while the resolution is too tidy, what Diaz suggests here is far from simple.
Swirling her derriere in lesser pictures, often starring more convincingly in Us Weekly photos, Diaz rarely gives a good, hard look at herself, and as good as she looks here, the varnish is starting to wear off.
Or rather, it's meant to appear that way: There's a rank desperation to her Maggie, a middle-aged floozy itching to pop out of a twentysomething party girl. Diaz drops the coo, scratches the charm off the ditz routine, and maybe inspired by MacLaine, she does not suck up. She plays a chick-flick casualty, someone who tried to live up to every cheap picture In Her Shoes so heroically tries to tear down.31.22167 -95.48173