Director : Anand Tucker
Screenplay : Steve Martin (based on his novella)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Steve Martin (Ray Porter), Claire Danes (Mirabelle Buttersfield), Jason Schwartzman (Jeremy), Bridgette Wilson-Sampra (Lisa Cramer), Sam Bottoms (Dan Buttersfield), Frances Conroy (Catherine Butterfield), Rebecca Pidgeon (Christie Richards), Samantha Shelton (Loki)
Shopgirl, which was written by Steven Martin based on his 2001 novella, is a more subtle, measured, and poignant version of L.A. Story (1991), an offbeat and at-the-time-underappreciated comedy that was also written by Martin. Both films are romances (albeit of vastly different tones) that have a unique affinity for their Los Angeles setting, which is tempered by the sense that L.A. is a den of missed connections. Martin’s characters are constantly reaching out for others, but they often either fail to make contact or connect with the wrong people.
In Shopgirl, the titular woman is Mirabelle (Claire Danes in a beautifully wounded performance), a twentysomething who has come out to L.A. from her cloistered home in Vermont hoping to make connections and succeed as an artist. Instead, she lives a lonely existence in a small, cramped apartment, selling a few drawings every year and making ends meet by working the glove counter on the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. Standing alone behind the shiny glass counter, watching wealthier and ostensibly happier people constantly pass by, Mirabelle’s job becomes a metaphor for her life. She is just a shade away from invisibility, a wallflower literalized in her frequent choice of floral-print dresses.
Yet, some people see her, including two men who enter her life at roughly the same time. The first is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a perfect slice of unshaved, long-haired L.A. slackerdom who can’t quite seem to get it together. He has energy and enthusiasm, especially for Mirabelle, but it comes out in all the wrong ways (he ends a date by proclaiming happily, “Congratulations, you have just been on a date wit Jeremy”). There’s a certain charm to him, but it’s buried beneath so much scuzz and inappropriateness that it’s a dull glow.
Ray Porter (Steve Martin), on the other hand, is another story. A computer tycoon in his 50s who shuttles back and forth between L.A. and Seattle on a private plane, he would be a dream catch for a lonelyheart like Mirabelle except for the fact that he can’t offer the one thing she truly needs: intimacy. The sex is great, he buys her nice things and flies her to New York City for black-tie events, but he can’t ever quite give of himself the way she needs. He’s not a bad man, just as Jeremy is not a bad man, but he is a severely limited one, and that is his tragedy.
Director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) gives Shopgirl a slow, almost overly studied aura that is redeemed here and there with bits of quirkiness that inject life into its mannered portrait of alienation. There are scenes that are quite funny, particularly whenever Jeremy is on-screen, yet there are other moments that are almost heart-breakingly sad, such as when Mirabelle finally realizes Ray’s limited potential and asks him, “Why don’t you love me?” Martin’s screenplay provides intimate glimpses into his characters’ lives, but denies us an easy rhythm and flow. Much of the film is composed of awkward moments that reflect both the realities of first dates and that elusive sense of human connection that seems to always be flitting past the characters.
Which brings us to the film’s primary weakness: its narration. At several points in the film, Martin inserts direct omniscient narration that tells us in no uncertain terms exactly what the characters are feeling and thinking. Unfortunately, the information is redundant and therefore insulting to the audience because it has already been conveyed visually and narratively. When we see Ray standing alone on his back patio, drinking a glass of wine and looking sadly in the direction of Mirabelle’s apartment building, we don’t need a narrator to tell us that he misses her. It is doubly strange that Martin himself reads the narration, since he plays a character on-screen; thus, the sound of his voice providing omniscient information on the soundtrack rips us away from his solid performance on screen as the severely limited romantic antihero, which threatens to break the mood the rest of the film has set. Thankfully, the narration is intermittent and therefore not completely detrimental, but it detracts heavily from an otherwise successful film.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Touchstone Pictures