Shirley’s Best Since Terms

In Her Shoes is pure joy. That’s not a word tossed around as freely as you think. In today’s movie market, there’s so little of it on view, and even if you get a glimpse, it’s fleeting. But this marvelous, up-with-the-lark movie stays sunny all day, with wit and intelligence to spare. After a fallow period of violence and depression on the screen, here is a movie for everyone with a heart that will remind you why you loved movies in the first place. It has happiness written all over it.

Well, why not? So much extraordinary talent has gone into the batter that it’s no wonder the cake came out with a smile. The story of two warring sisters who are polar opposites in looks and personality, and a long-lost grandmother who enriches, recharges and changes their lives, In Her Shoes was written by Erin Broc-kovich screenwriter Susannah Grant, directed by the multifaceted Curtis Hanson, and stars three talented and mesmerizing women—Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and the incomparable Shirley MacLaine. With so much to applaud, you get your money’s worth—and then some.

In this heartwarming film, Maggie (Ms. Diaz) is a gorgeous, popular and wildly irresponsible party girl who suffers from a severe dyslexia that prevents her from holding down any kind of job for more than a couple of weeks. Her sister Rose (Ms. Collette), on the other hand, is an overweight plain-Jane workaholic attorney who went from Princeton to a top Philadelphia law firm. Overwhelmed by the demands of her work schedule, body-image issues and a defeating lack of self-confidence, Rose is always looking for love, while one-night stands come naturally to Maggie.

It’s bad enough when Maggie flops on her older sister’s sofa between jobs, trashing the apartment and breaking the heels on Rose’s shoes, but when Rose finds her in bed with the hunky guy from her law firm who was shaping up to be a real boyfriend—well, the rupture is so violent it seems unlikely that the two will ever speak to each other again. So Rose, with her black horn-rimmed glasses and no makeup, kicks Maggie, the brain-dead slut of few words, many cocktails and no morals, out into the street on her pretty pierced earlobes.

Maggie steals everything, but one day—as she’s being evicted from her father’s house by her obnoxious stepmother—she comes across a box of letters addressed to the sisters, which their deceitful father kept from them since they were children. The letters and birthday cards are from the maternal grandmother she never knew she had, and most of them include money. So she heads for Miami to sponge off a new patsy for a while and work on her tan.

But Grandma Ella (Ms. MacLaine) is a vibrant, vivacious, no-nonsense character who lives in an upscale senior citizens’ facility with palm trees, a golf course and a swimming pool. Wise and resourceful, Ella has a soft spot for girls in trouble, but she’s no fool. When she puts her sexy granddaughter to work helping the old codgers in the assisted-living facility, things begin to change. Maggie learns to read. Ella starts watching Sex and the City and drinking cosmopolitans. And back in Philly, the disillusioned Rose—who has given up her job and become a dog walker—heads for Florida to see for herself what’s going on, and ends up finding security in the least likely place. She finds love by helping herself, Maggie finds a sense of value by helping others, and out of all the emotional chaos, the two sisters find (and forgive) each other. Meanwhile, Ella revives her old sense of humor, feels half her age and gets a guy of her own. In the lives of this trio, a lot of doors are slamming shut all over the place, but the fun is watching them find the keys to unlock new doors that transform them all. It all ends with a wedding, and I guarantee you there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

If any of this sounds farcical, I can only promise you that the rich, beautifully observed characters Susannah Grant has fleshed out from the novel by Jennifer Weiner are so worth knowing, liking and saving that you find yourself laughing along with them, not at them. Curtis Hanson, who usually specializes in bare-knuckle punches that cause nosebleeds ( L. A. Confidential, The River Wild, 8 Mile) may find himself accused by some cynical nitwits as frittering away his tough talents on a “chick flick,” but he has nothing to apologize for. In Her Shoes is more profound and layered than your average date movie, and in its universal humanity there is much to be learned by men as well as women, regardless of age or experience.

The ensemble acting is prize-worthy. The terrific and always unpredictable Australian actress Toni Collette has been a sensuous sexpot, a frazzled frump and even a drag queen in a variety of film roles. She can be hot or cold, but as the repressed sister who learns to L-I-V-E, she is sizzling. Cameron Diaz has less growth potential in a role that advertises her assets by shooting them mostly from the waist down, but as the bubbly, scattered hedonist who matures through charity, she’s as touching as she is colorful.

For Shirley MacLaine, words turn limp with inadequacy. As the grandmother who gets her groove back, she’s found her finest role since the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment and plays it with thrilling restraint. You’ll find none of the flamboyant over-the-top histrionics she’s been forced to play in recent embarrassments like Bewitched. Funny and poignant, she uses abundant humanity and smart psychology to great advantage, lending her knowledge to the other actors generously as they all capture the spirit and nuances of their roles with a dynamic power and insight that simultaneously envelops, enfolds and entertains. In Her Shoes is a movie to cherish.

Brooklyn Writers?

More good news: Despite an ill-advised title that makes The Squid and the Whale sound like a Dr. Seuss comic book starring Gerald McBoing-Boing and Charlie the Tuna, this film is a compelling, sensitive and superbly crafted study of the collapse of a dysfunctional Brooklyn marriage, an acrimonious divorce between two literary types with no parenting skills, and the wrenching effect of so much bitter domestic turmoil on the children. What makes it different from most coming-of-age stories is that the mordant autobiographical details remembered by writer-director Noah Baumbach are laced with scenes both touchingly dramatic and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Luminous Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels, whose career started out with acclaim on Broadway and rapidly disintegrated into a dung pile of rotten movies, are totally three-dimensional as Joan and Bernard Berkman, two angry, miserable and self-absorbed writers whose struggling careers dominate a family life that is clearly crumbling. They both have Ph.D.’s in literature and are published authors, but although Joan has a new book deal, Bernard’s literary light has long since faded and he’s buried himself in academia, growing more pretentious and bitter by the year. This is the kind of man who is so formal and knows so little about being a father that he even signs one of his novels to his son with the inscription “Best Wishes.” While the adrenaline in their once-promising marriage reduces to mere toleration, their two sons watch the resentment between their parents with growing alarm. When the parents separate, each one takes a son and uses an overdeveloped flight of literary fancy to poison the kid against the other. The parents are arrogant and eccentric; the boys are bright and precocious. All of them are lost.

While Dad moves in with one of his students (Anna Paquin) and Mom has an affair with her tennis coach (William Baldwin), the boys cope with the logistics of joint custody. To deal with the chaos, Mom methodically divides the duties (she’s in charge of tennis and winter colds, Dad handles sneakers and pet turtles), but they are such poor role models they even disrespectfully steal each other’s books. They all go away for a weekend, forgetting that they’ve left their 12-year-old son Frank (Owen Kline, the son of actor Kevin Kline and a real discovery) home alone for three days to explore the liquor cabinet. The older son, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), tells a lie in the school talent show and claims a Pink Floyd song as his own original composition, which lands him in the clutches of a psychiatrist. Frank acts out his own aberrant behavior by smearing his semen all over his friends’ lockers and library books.

The movie provides no easy answers to these dilemmas but catalogs with stunning accuracy the rhythms of New York’s intellectual classes as they unload their pretensions, dogmas and prejudices on their children and leave the solutions up to their shrinks. The tragedy of kids trying to act sophisticated after divorce and caught in the fallout is paralleled with the frustration and annoyance of parents who have never learned how to accept their children’s feelings with an importance equal to their own. Mr. Baumbach’s script is suffused with details of life in a Brooklyn brownstone, and he treats the conflicts with both humor and irony.

The acting is first-rate. The caustic Ms. Linney and the bearded, noxious Mr. Daniels are the realistic embodiment of intellectuals gone sour, and the boys walk a fine line between clueless innocence and smart-alecks who do unto others before they do unto them. They add resonance and edge to the drama around them, handling the pain and rage of their parents’ divorce with wit and strength. The dialogue flows seamlessly.

I hope this honest, riveting and painfully realistic little film with big emotional truths attracts a deserving audience, but it will have to start with that title. “The squid and the whale” refers to an ugly sculpture in the Museum of Natural History which always terrified Walt as a kid. The day he goes to the museum and it doesn’t faze him, he knows he’s taken a giant step in the direction of adulthood. Explain that one to the folks in Baton Rouge.

Talking Trash

Two for the Money is a dreadful waste of time, money and manpower about the cutthroat world of sports betting. Watching the motor mouths that have taken over the cable sports shows only reminds me how the quality of television programming has collapsed. I’m sure you’ve seen these spastic blabbermouths, screeching and out-shouting each other to trash athletes and predict the scores of everything from ice hockey to one-legged sack racing. Matthew McConaughey plays one of these money-grubbing jockstraps, who almost wrecks his own life in the world of wheelers and dealers. He is Brandon Lang, a former quarterback reduced by a knee fracture to soliciting phone bets in a 1-900 numbers racket in Las Vegas.

Suddenly he’s “discovered” by Walter Abrams (Al Pacino), king of the reckless New York handicappers and star of a noisy information show called The Sports Advisors. Walter is ruthless, power-mad, and a chain smoker with a heart problem. He’s also a recovering gambling addict who never bets his own money—which should be a warning signal to the naïve newcomer—and he’s got a sexy wife, Toni (Rene Russo), who is an ex-junkie. Walter plays surrogate father, changes Brandon’s name, and introduces his new protégé to pedicures and prostitutes, slicking up his sales pitch, and building the TV show around him with ominous (and overwritten) lines like “Brandon Lang with his fettucine knee is as flat dead as Donald Trump’s hair.”

Under the showbiz moniker John Anthony, however, Brandon drives clients to bankruptcy and endangers his own life with a Puerto Rican gangster (Armand Assante), who shoves a gun in his mouth and urinates on his thousand-dollar suit. To get back to his good-old-boy country roots again, he tries to bust out of his Ferrari and head for the nearest chicken-fried steak, but Walter is a control freak who won’t let go. Worse still, Brandon’s talent for predicting winners dries up and he makes one final pick before his career ends by tossing a coin on the men’s room floor.

It is impossible to describe how monumentally inconsequential all of this is. The writing is so fast and loud and full of fancy footwork you think it’s awful, until you realize this is probably true to the wasteful world of freaks and frauds it’s exploring. The script by Dan Gilroy tells you all sorts of things you don’t need (or want) to know about high-stakes sports betting, illegal in 49 states unless you disguise it as the same kind of advice a stockbroker offers—for a healthy commission, of course. What he fails to do is provide the three stars with real people to play—especially Rene Russo, who is married to the screenwriter in real life. Hopefully, he will someday write her a role that sustains the audience’s interest. The direction, by a hack named D.J. Caruso, who helmed Taking Lives, last year’s abominable serial-killer bore with Angelina Jolie, is as predictable as it is monotonous.

Mr. Pacino is no stranger to bad movies, and Mr. McConaughey rarely makes a good one. It’s actually amusing watching them try to stay awake. But the big problem with Two for the Money is what it’s about. The themes—money corrupts innocence, status can’t buy self-respect—are yawningly self-evident and anything but original. But the subject—sports betting—is not on 90 percent of the population’s need-to-know list. Is there an audience here? Place your bets.