Before contemplating the mind-bending Hollywood notion of bikini-clad Hispanic shiksa goddess Cameron Diaz playing a Jewish granddaughter surrounded by elderly Miami shuffleboard mavens in the learn-and-hug comedy In Her Shoes, let us pause to salute the familiar sight of scarf-draped Shirley MacLaine playing a mother — in this case also a grandmother — who’s far from sure that the whole maternal route is for her. MacLaine’s alpha Golden Girl Ella Hirsch may hail, nominally, from a culture of chopped liver, but the character is related to every tough, nonsectarian, drive-your-daughter-crazy bird the actress has played from Terms of Endearment to Bewitched. And once again, the old broad plays an old broad like an old lioness pawing her cubs.
The widowed Ella makes an inconstant Jewish grandma — she’s the rare member of her retirement community who doesn’t speak with the inflections of a lifelong bagel eater — but she’s a rock for her younger granddaughter, Maggie (Diaz), who shows up at Ella’s Florida condo door one day after screwing up her life back home in Philadelphia. As novelist Jennifer Weiner decreed in the popular specimen of chick lit on which the movie is based, Maggie is a promiscuous man-magnet who can barely read, an irresponsible slob who can’t hold a job.
On the other hand, Maggie’s older sister, Rose (Toni Collette), is a frumpy workaholic who can’t find a man, depressed by her apparently hopeless state of being overweight and overstocked with refrigerated tubs of ice cream. (Through the fun-house mirror of Hollywood, the miseries of obesity have been reduced to size 10 worries.) The two fight like fats-and-thins, but they’re also bound by love, siblings made motherless at an early age who are united in their love of expensive footwear. After a giant squabble, will the two reconcile? Will Rose find love with a nice Jewish boy? Will Maggie grow up? Will MacLaine grab an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category with her bare teeth? You have to ask?
The book is satisfying — and dissatisfying — in the standard way such target-audience literature always is: The plot math is neat, the cultural references are easy, the jokes are sitcom-honed, all the ancillary players have their exits and their entrances. The movie, though, satisfies and frustrates in ways unique to viewer expectations for a production directed by Curtis Hanson, esteemed for his ability to communicate sociological color. Could it be that the director of L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile has been defeated by characters on a first-name basis with brisket, by women who, in Susannah Grant’s screenplay, represent avatars of joyless workaholism and joyless sexaholism?
Diaz continues to get mileage out of shaking her friendly booty — the clean/dirty party girl of a young man’s dreams — and Collette continues her work in the field of plain/pretty femininity. But it’s a slipshod movie indeed when even MacLaine can be upstaged by professional little-old-Jewish-lady player Francine Beers as Ella’s neighbor, zooming around in her senior go-cart: Here, at least, is one character rooted in a real place, who knows how to kibitz from the heart.