When news of Curtis Hanson’s death broke last night, I opened Twitter and found just what I expected: movie fans mourning the late director, many of whom were lauding his most critically successful film, L.A. Confidential. It’s a common reaction: the death of a filmmaker understandably leads a fan to revisit the work that inspired or affected them most, and L.A. Confidential was a hit that could have won the Oscar for Best Picture had Titanic not sailed in the way. But it’s not the first movie I thought of with an aching bit of wistfulness after learning that Hanson died of a heart attack at age 71. That honor went to 2005's unusually warm and insightful drama In Her Shoes.
Though it could be seen as an odd choice to follow up 2002's smash hit 8 Mile with an adaptation of a Jennifer Weiner novel about sisters “who share nothing but their shoe size,” Hanson’s filmography up to that point was sort of all over the map (before winning an Oscar for L.A. Confidential, a throwback to classic Hollywood noirs, he entertained audiences with movies like Losin’ It, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The River Wild). The sharp turn into schmaltz territory wasn’t entirely out of left field—Hanson built a successful career out of being consistently inconsistent.
While not a huge hit, it opened to bigger numbers than the Ryan Reynolds comedy Waiting... and some Al Pacino movie that weekend, ultimately making around $80 million worldwide. Not bad for a talky, 130-minute dramedy about sisters starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine—but the fan in me wishes it had done even better. In Her Shoes, with its interwoven, generation-spanning stories about relationships between women in which romances with men take a backseat, almost feels like it should have been released 10 years earlier, alongside films like How To Make an American Quilt, Waiting to Exhale, and Boys On the Side. But I suppose it’s better late than never, right?
On paper, the plot summary almost feels like a joke, or perhaps the movie plot in an Amy Schumer sketch about chick flicks: Diaz plays Maggie Feller, the semi-literate, destructively promiscuous, and oft unemployed little sister of Rose (Collette) who—after failing a MTV VJ audition and sleeping with Maggie’s boyfriend—moves to Florida to live with her long-lost grandmother Ella (MacLaine), where a dying old English professor teaches her to read. But nowhere in the film are Hanson’s gifts more noticeable than in Diaz’s thoughtful, delicate performance—which isn’t just the best of In Her Shoes, but the best of her career (despite the role’s near-impossibility of being described with a straight face).
While her previous attempts at the genre in movies like Vanilla Sky, Gangs of New York, and Being John Malkovich can almost be read as failed attempts at camp (see: “I swallowed your cum! That means something!” or... this), something about this film finally brought out the dramatic actress in Diaz. Though it could have been a passion for the material or a connection to Weiner’s characters, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it was Hanson. This is the same man who made a real (albeit short-lived) actor out of Eminem, and gave Kim Basinger not only the best role of her career, but the one that won her an Oscar.
But Diaz is just one piece of Hanson’s near-perfect construction. The other lead actors—MacLaine in particular—fill their performances with the kind of earnestness and wisdom that suggests a profound respect for the production and passion for its source material. (Have I used the term “handsomely made” yet? Because this movie is handsomely made.) It’s hard to create a believable screen family—even harder if it spans generations—but Collette and Diaz, two actors whose resumes are as different as their personal histories, feel like actual sisters here, and MacLaine is more than convincing as their grandmother.
This is particularly evident in their first scene—which doesn’t even take place until well into the second act. As the Maggie and Rose sit around Ella’s pastel kitchen table talking about their late mother with her mother, Hanson expertly turns a moment as schmaltzy and artificial as flipping through a scrapbook into a wrenching moment of realization—when the two sisters revisit a memory they both filed away quite differently (I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for the uninitiated), and a grandmother realizes just how much of two lives she’s missed for no reason but her own pride.
Again, writing this out feels unfair, but sort of essential in describing the movie’s successes. Hanson turned a lovely little novel that could have made for an above average Lifetime movie into the kind of catch-all, mainstream crowd-pleaser that comes around just once every couple of years—if we’re lucky. I’m not going to play the game and call it his best movie, just the one that—after learning of his death—immediately made me think, “I’m so glad he gave us this one.”