With his "L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys" and "8 Mile," Curtis Hanson delivered a bracing surprise each time out, each one posing so distinctive and different a challenge. "In Her Shoes" is different, too, but the surprise this time is that he has made such a conventional picture, one that advances no out-of-the-ordinary ideas or feelings.

With his previous three films, “L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys” and “8 Mile,” Curtis Hanson delivered a bracing surprise each time out, each one posing so distinctive and different a challenge. “In Her Shoes” is different, too, but the surprise this time is that he has made such a conventional picture, one that advances no out-of-the-ordinary ideas or feelings. While the director’s avid fans may be disappointed, however, upscalish mainstream auds, particularly women, will eat up this well-acted, emotionally focused adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s popular novel about the falling-out and eventual reconciliation of two diametrically opposed sisters, auguring well for peppy B.O. through the fall upon Oct. 7 release.

The “chick lit” label has been derided both for feminist/political reasons and because such pigeon-holing has the appearance of ghettoizing the genre commercially and critically. But there’s no escaping that a work centering upon young women who think about little other than their looks, weight and clothes and take hourly seismographic readings of the status of their relationships is going to be put in this category. Add to that a large cast of cute dogs and an acutely embarrassing bridal shower and “In Her Shoes” qualifies on all fronts.

So while for many guys it will take a woman they’re really, really interested in to drag them to this sort of high class soap opera, women and more emotionally flexible men should have little trouble becoming involved in this tale of sisterly love/hate, at least once the initial half-hour of almost painfully direct exposition in Susannah Grant’s screenplay is dispensed with.

Intercut opening scene of parallel sexcapades pointedly illustrates the differences between the Feller sisters. Rose (Toni Collette), a successful big-firm Philadelphia lawyer, sleeps with her boss and fantasizes the best possible result romantically and professionally. Sexier younger sis Maggie (Cameron Diaz) attends her 10th high school reunion and drunkenly throws up in a bathroom while getting it on with one of her old classmates.

Schematically, then, Rose is a bright, responsible, somewhat overweight woman who has so subordinated her personal life to her career that she can’t imagine any man would be attracted to her, while Maggie is a full-time party girl who’s always gotten by on her looks and utter availability.

When Maggie’s latest round of ridiculous behavior gets her kicked out of the house by step-mother Sydelle (Candice Azzara), she has nowhere to crash but on Rose’s couch. It’s a stretch to accept that a nice, upper-middle-class Jewish girl would not only be such a social cretin but would be functionally illiterate to boot (Maggie’s inability to read prevents her from getting an MTV DJ job), but Maggie has leeched off others all her life.

Despite the fact that she and Rose have been ultra-close since they lost their mother as little girls, Maggie thinks nothing of trashing her sister’s apartment, rummaging through her personal effects and screwing her would-be boyfriend.

This last understandably gets her bounced out on the street, but not before she has discovered a cache of years-old holiday cards (with money enclosed) from a grandmother she long thought dead. So with nowhere else to turn, Maggie heads for Florida, where she finds the widowed Ella (Shirley MacLaine) living in a pleasant retirement community.

Pic takes a turn for the better at this point, as the two women gingerly feel one another out against the backdrop of a lively group of oldsters endowed with wry humor and only intermittently irritating levels of “Cocoon”-like cutes. Maggie and Ella are mutually incriminating at first, with the former issuing charges of abandonment and the latter explaining that she was pushed away from her granddaughters by their resentful father after his wife’s death. Guilt piles up, truths are gradually revealed and the old men at the facility greatly enjoy the lissome, if uncommunicative, Maggie around the pool.

When Ella catches Maggie rifling through her valuables, Ella generously proposes to match her salary if Maggie will take a job at the assisted living center. It’s there that Maggie is induced to practice reading with a courtly, now-blind professor (the inimitable Norman Lloyd), receiving from him the kind of personal interest and praise she evidently never received before.

Meanwhile, up in Philly, Rose’s life has also improved. For sanity’s sake, she’s quit her high-powered job, getting great joy out her new profession of walking dogs, and having finally given in to persistent suitor Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein) and become engaged. However, her inability to address the painful subject of her sister becomes so pronounced as to create a rift with Simon, finally inducing her to make a trip to Florida herself.

For better or worse, depending upon your point of view, it’s the type of film in which an Elizabeth Bishop poem is used to illuminate and transform a character. For a Hanson film, it is notable both for its relatively lax sense of narrative momentum and its only modest degree of rigor. Helmer’s customary smarts are mostly to be found in the scenes with MacLaine, whose performance unerringly conveys a lifetime’s worth of emotional wisdom leavened by a healthy propensity for looking on the bright side. Pic gains a spine whenever she’s around.

Collette also has a strong grasp of her character, and while Rose’s dismayed reactions to the misfortunes that befall her is understandable, she tosses off her job rather easily, which begs some further clarification of her deepest motives.

Diaz is completely credible as a hot number in danger of becoming, in her sister’s words, “a middle-aged tramp,” but Maggie is a character completely lacking in self-awareness and Diaz provides no subtext for this. In the end, the Feller sisters are women defined by primary traits and remain unfleshed out by scripted subtleties and actorly grace notes.

Supporting turns, especially by the jovial bunch in Florida, are colorful, and craft contributions are sharp without being unduly polished. Mark Isham’s score is too cloyingly cutesy by half.

In Her Shoes

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Scott Free/Deuce Three production. Produced by Ridley Scott, Carol Fenelon, Lisa Ellzey, Curtis Hanson. Executive producer, Tony Scott. Co-producers, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda, Erin Upson. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay, Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Terry Stacey; editors, Craig Kitson, Lisa Zeno-Churgin; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Dan Davis; art director, John Warnke; set designer, Anthony D. Parrillo; set decorator, Teresa Visinare; costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff; sound (Dolby/DTS), Petur Hliddal; supervising sound editor, David Giammarco; assistant director, John Wildermuth; casting, David Rubin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 12, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Maggie Feller - Cameron Diaz Rose Feller - Toni Collette Ella Hirsch - Shirley MacLaine Simon Stein - Mark Feuerstein Michael Feller - Ken Howard Sydelle Felle - Candice Azzara Mrs. Lefkowitz - Francine Beers The Professor - Norman Lloyd Lewis Feldman - Jerry Adler Amy - Brooke Smith Jim Danvers - Richard Burgi

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