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'Shoes' falls short of a perfect fit

To any woman reading this who has one or more living grandmothers: Ignore my measly 2 1/2-star rating, call up Grams, put her in the car, take her to see ''In Her Shoes." You can thank me later.

The rest of us will just have to suspend our disbelief and accept that A) Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette could be sisters in any known universe, alternate or otherwise, B) that Shirley MacLaine could be the nice Jewish grandparent they never knew existed, and C) that MacLaine could give the most understated performance in the movie.

''In Her Shoes" says there's nothing wrong with modern womanhood that moving to your bubbe's Florida retirement community can't fix, and if it has to stack its cards higher than the John Hancock Tower to put it over, at least the cast brings oxygen. And high heels. Lots of high heels.

Based on Jennifer Weiner's 2002 novel, ''In Her Shoes" offers us the Feller sisters, trampy bombshell Maggie (Diaz) and dowdy lawyer Rose (Collette). The former is a dyslexic roundheels first seen seducing, then throwing up on, a stranger in the bathroom of a high school reunion. Clearly, some moral growth is in order. The latter is a workaholic frump with a closet full of Jimmy Choos and a fear of wearing them. The history of their relationship has been: Maggie gets the guy, Maggie goes too far, Rose bails Maggie out. Rose is tired of bailing Maggie out, and who wouldn't be? In a nice if not especially deep turn, Diaz plays Maggie as a big baby whose charm has long expired.

The movie splits in two when Maggie discovers a cache of letters that lead her to Ella Hirsch (MacLaine), the grandmother her father (Ken Howard) exiled after the long-ago death of the girls' mother. Sensing a family connection and a source of ready cash to exploit, Maggie appears in Ella's retirement community for an extended stay, causing legions of codgers to blow their shuffleboard shots as she jogs by. Secrets are aired, feelings shared, anger bared as a Greek chorus of old-timers led by Jerry Adler and the 80-year-old Francine Beers nod sagely. The latter cruises through the movie on a go-cart, like some sort of emotional motorcycle cop.

Rose, meanwhile, is back in Philadelphia coming to grips with her nonlife and trying to embrace the opposite. Since this is a movie, that involves weight loss and dogs. Also a dog of a co-worker (Richard Burgi) and a more suitable suitor (Mark Feuerstein) who the movie seems to think is quite the catch but who might strike some as a Type-A noodge from whom Rose would best tiptoe quietly away. There's an evil stepmom, too, played with perfect aggravating obliviousness by Candice Azzara; a wedding shower during which the character humiliates Rose is the sort of scene ''In Her Shoes" does mortifyingly well. We all have our family loves and loathings, and the movie pokes at them until it hurts. Then it slaps on a big Band-Aid.

Director Curtis Hanson, the gifted journeyman of ''L.A. Confidential" and ''8 Mile," has asked that his movie not be labeled a ''chick flick," but that's of course what it is, and what's wrong with that? An honorable if not honored genre, ch--k fl--ks traffic in the fraying and retying of emotional bonds; they're where audiences -- male and female -- get to see their domestic problems discussed and smoothed over. They offer necessary lies and, at best, entertaining and provocative ones.

''In Her Shoes" is entertaining enough, but it's more pat than provocative -- this is what makes it a bona fide audience pleaser while keeping it from drawing real blood. It's the kind of movie that lets Maggie haltingly read Elizabeth Bishop's ''One Art," only to suck the mystery out of the poem's grave, uncompromising stanzas by having a blind retired professor (Norman Lloyd) explain them to her (and us) one by one.

But this isn't a movie about subtlety -- it's about things finally said rather than left unsaid -- and that makes MacLaine's performance even more marvelous. Ella has been burned by life and by family, and she's giving nothing away, certainly not to the blond young tootsie eyeing the bankroll in the sock drawer. Of course Ella unbends -- that's what movies are for -- but MacLaine calls on all her invisible skills to make the process seem fresh and hard-earned. Your grandma will believe, even if a critic doesn't.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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