Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Prior to actually watching In Her Shoes
, the only contact I had with the film was while on a commuter train to the Jersey Shore. A woman in her early twenties with a five-piece set of Louis Vuitton luggage was on the phone yammering on about this really great book by Jennifer Weiner; "you know, she wrote Good in Bed
." For the next ten minutes my traveling companion described to her friend the various nuances and plot intricacies of Weiner's novel. "Well, basically it's about these two sisters -- Rose is really unattractive and successful. She's, like, an attorney but doesn't have a boyfriend and eats A LOT of ice cream. The other sister, Maggie, is this really beautiful unemployed girl. She, like, lives at her Dad's house and sleeps around. She can't get a job and I think she dropped out of high school. No! She just didn't go to college. Anyways, she has some issues, like, learning disabilities. Right, yeah totally. So yeah, they're the two main characters and there's also a grandmother who shows up later in the book. Rose, the successful sister, really likes shoes and has this closet FULL of designer shoes. Yeah, like Carrie [Carrie Bradshaw from HBO's Sex in the City
] but BETTER. Shoes. Totally. Jimmy Choo -- you know. Yeah, so shoes are really important, because Maggie and Rose have the same size feet. So, it's totally, like, about the idea of, you know, being in someone else's shoes. Yeah. You should read it. It's, like, really cute. Plus, I think it's being made into a movie with Cameron Diaz. I know! I loved that bikini, too. Wait the one from Charlie's Angels... oh, heinous!" This conversation, of which I only heard one side, took place in July 2005, the film, directed by Curtis Hanson, was released that fall. It's a surprising film, particularly because it's brilliant.
In Her Shoes is the story, like many others, of the modern day dysfunctional family. Brilliantly adapted from Jennifer Weiner's nearly unfilmable, fluffy novel, it's the interpersonal exposé of the Feller family, sisters Maggie May (Cameron Diaz
) and Rose Feller (Toni Collette
) and their estranged grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine
). Touching upon such topics as: sexual promiscuity, due diligence, ice cream, a childhood pet named 'Honey Bun,' MTV, Sex and the City, geriatric living, Elizabeth Bishop
, eating disorders, Jews for Jesus
, suicide, mental illness, family, WW2, and shoe fetishists, the film runs the gamut of potentially glib subject matter. Through sleight of hand and alchemy, Mr. Hanson weaves together a cliché-free, beautifully cadenced tale, one that can teach us a lot about what's wrong with cinema today.
Mr. Hanson has the uncanny ability to construct exceptional films out of overused and seemingly tired narratives. Just when a specific genre has reached the point of near collapse, Hanson resuscitates it without affectation or pretension and uses the genre to his advantage. His earlier works, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
(Psychological Thriller/ suburban nightmare), LA Confidential
(Modern Noir)/Police Detective Film), Wonder Boys
(Comedy of Manners/Coming-of-Age), 8 Mile
(Musical Drama/Urban Drama), and In Her Shoes
(Comedy of Manners/ Dysfunctional Family) flush out the glibness associated with the genre, creating clarity and proof of concept. In Her Shoes
could easily have been adapted to screen by a far less deft director and been a completely different story. It could have been exactly what one might expect of a Cameron Diaz chick flick. Instead, it is nimble and thought provoking.
Mr. Hanson's characters roam in rich and thoughtful environs: through carefully constructed sets amidst a deliberate color palate and garbed in costumes which only complement their roles. In the case of the Feller women, the depiction of their familial structure is so keenly observant that the audience has the care and desire to form actual opinions about each of the characters. This is no small feat, especially when one considers the challenge of fashioning a meaningful film out of a chick-lit novel and the oft-overused dysfunctional family narrative. Against all odds, Curtis Hanson tells the story of Rose, Maggie, and Ella beautifully as he lucidly connects each character's voice and point of view with their shared earlier life experiences. Too often, storytellers fail to spend the time or implement the narrative devices necessary to show a character in full -- creating a chasm between the audience and the characters. This lack of dimensionality leaves the audience indifferent -- significantly undermining a film's effectiveness. By virtue of its specificity, In Her Shoes
transcends the dysfunctional family narrative.
Nowadays, with such a rich history of storytelling behind us, it is difficult to exclude anything from genre. Terry Gross begins her 2001 Fresh Air interview
with Wes Anderson
, the acclaimed director of The Royal Tenenbaums
, by asking: "Dysfunctional family is perhaps the most common subject now in contemporary fiction and in a lot of movies. What made you think that you could take on the subject and still have something else to say? It seems like so much has already been said." Gross' question is exceedingly significant. The popularity of the dysfunctional family as theme is evidence of a larger trend -- it has, in fact, become a genre. Within an entertainment-centric society such as ours, where film and television permeate our lives, genre is an extremely convenient device. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman says as much in the film Adaptation
when his character Donald Kaufman returns from a screenwriting seminar and says: "McKee [the instructor] says we all have to realize we write in a genre, so we must find originality within that genre. Did you know that there hasn't been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary...? My genre's thriller, what's yours"?
"Umm...dysfunctional family" is a broadly accepted response
. Fair enough. Done properly, the dysfunctional family is a virtual goldmine for exploring the human psyche and framing relative life experiences. When all else fails, the Lifetime Movie Network
provides a 24-hour home for a whole host of B-list stories of the dysfunctional brethren. As subject matter, we love the dysfunctional family. As an audience we're absorbed in the notion that interpersonal and familial relationships are complicated, thus dysfunctionality is entertaining. The issue is when genre and subject matter are used as a narrative crutch, and the storyteller relies upon what has already occurred within the genre, leaving certain aspects undeveloped.
My 8th grade English class concluded with one final assignment: after completing J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
, write a ten-page epilogue. This exercise was satisfying and surprisingly easy. Its clarity was due to the fact that there is no mistaking what an individual is capable of in Salinger's world. Thus, faced with the challenge of winding down The Catcher in the Rye
, I, the 13-year-old reader, was able to craft ten pages in which the characters I had come to know so acutely interacted for a final scene because the characters are undeniable. The assignment invited me to enter Holden's world, not my world. It's no wonder that the infamously reclusive Mr. Salinger refuses to sell the movie rights to any of his stories to Hollywood -- best to keep that particular cast of characters as hermetically sealed as possible, within the pages of The Catcher in the Rye
. It takes an especially skilled director to realize characters as fully from the written page to the screen. Mr. Hanson has, time and time again, displayed a preternatural ability to extract meaning from fluffy source material. What would happen if he were regularly adapting material truly worthy of his unique talents?
Mr. Hanson's next film opens March 16, 2007.