A comfy fit for chick-lit fans

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Jennifer Weiner's novel "In Her Shoes," about two sisters who couldn't be more opposite, isn't in the same league as, say, "Bridget Jones's Diary," but it'll do. There's lots of laughing through tears. Not to mention tearing up while laughing. There are boyfriend problems, commitment problems, parent problems - even grandparent problems.

By all rights, the movie version, directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, should have been a real sudser, and in some ways that's exactly what it is. But at least it has been made by people who don't appear to have learned everything they know about life while sitting under the hair dryer.

From movie to movie you never quite know what you're going to get from Hanson, but it's often terrific, whether it be "L.A. Confidential" or "Wonder Boys" or "8 Mile." His screenwriter for "In Her Shoes," Susannah Grant, wrote "Erin Brockovich," which was a genre unto itself: A crusading chick flick. The only crusade here is the scenery munch-a-thon between Collette and Diaz, who together practically define yin and yang.

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It's not entirely believable that these two are playing real sisters, and not just because they don't look anything alike. Even though Collette's Rose and Diaz's Maggie grew up together, they don't have the subtle body language or vocal rhythms that most siblings share. But who said chick flicks have to be believable? Actually, they are more fun when they're not.

Rose is a successful but mopey lawyer who is dallying with her boss and can't quite believe that anybody would desire her. Maggie is a flibbertigibbet sexpot who flubs an audition to be an MTV DJ and whimsically sleeps with her sister's beau - thereby creating the rift that takes most of the movie to mend. You can see where this is going: Rose will emerge from her cocoon and find true love and selfworth while Maggie will unveil the inner beauty heretofore completely camouflaged by the outer one.

Chick flicks often try to have it both ways. On the one hand, we are told that people - i.e., women - should not be judged by their appearances. (Men are usually typed immediately: the jerk, the heel, the wimp, the dream boat). But on the other hand, much is made of appearances. "In Her Shoes" keeps flaunting Maggie's looks while reminding us she also has a heart. Rose is a crackerjack lawyer who gives it all up to become a free-spirited professional dog walker - which, when you think about it, seems like just another way to practice law.

Right about the time you think that maybe you've had enough of these two yammering at each other, the scene shifts from Philadelphia to a Florida retirement community, and the mood becomes light and airy. The colors change from burnt umber to Easter egg. And who should show up but Shirley MacLaine, playing the girls' long-lost grandmother, Ella. Hanson must have realized that adding MacLaine's usual brio to this already heady mix would invite catastrophe, and so she responds with (gasp) a quietly effective performance. After all those years of emoting, MacLaine seems liberated. (Francine Beers, who plays Ella's best friend, seems liberated in a different way - she appears to be auditioning for "The Golden Girls: The Next Generation.")

No great claims should be made for "In Her Shoes." If the aim here was to show how chick lit can become just plain lit, the effort failed. But there is something to be said for froth when it's expertly whipped. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language, and some sexual content.

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