The International Writers Magazine

Directed by Anand Tucker
Written by Steve Martin
Steve Martin, Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman

Dan Schneider 

Shopgirl is one of those very good films that somehow leaves you wanting it to have been something better, something great, which it is not. It indeed had a chance to be a truly great film, save for a few glitches, most of them having to do with the screenplay, but opted for the true Lowest Common Denominator Hollywood flaw of ‘playing it safe’.

Where the film succeeds is that it is blatantly a middle-aged male fantasy film, with an average looking fiftysomething wealthy computer executive named Ray Porter and his attempts to make a mistress out of a twentysomething ‘shopgirl’ he meets and woos at her L.A. Saks Fifth Avenue department store counter. She sells high fashion formal gloves and the double-divorced Ray (Steve Martin) buys them and mails them to her apartment. The shopgirl, a wannabe artist from Vermont named Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), is sort of involved with an awkward loser, amplifier salesman, and font designer named Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman, of Rushmore fame). From the first scene Danes and Schwartzman have together, at a laundromat, it’s obvious they have real onscreen chemistry and are destined to be together. This is not a flaw, for most romances have this. The crux of the film is not will they end up together, but how will they end up together?

Schwartzman’s character is the best thing in the film, and the actor steals every scene he’s in. Jeremy is clearly not your typical slacker/loser- you sense a depth to him, and a genuineness that so many other similar roles lack. This is not to say that Danes and Martin are not good; they are. She is perfect as a pretty, but not gorgeous, girl with dreams, and Martin is very good as the distant, caring, yet somehow creepy older man. He plays the role very straight, and is a revelation. Compared to fellow comics Bill Murray and Robin Williams, he can play ‘straight’ without overemoting, or being obvious about it. Yet, this really is Schwartzman’s film. He brings a blend of comedy and pathos that is rare onscreen. His love for Mirabelle sustains him through months on the road with a band, as she and Ray go through the motions of a doomed relationship.

Ray clearly just wants a mistress on call in between his business trips to Seattle and New York, while Mirabelle wants to be romanced by a rich older man. And here is the fatal schism in the screenplay. We see no early scenes that define why in the world Mirabelle could be attracted to Ray. While not a bikini babe, she’s clearly the girl next door that most men dream of. She could have her pick of guys. She’s clearly smart, artsy, and not a golddigger, and Ray’s clearly cold, aloof, and merely looking for ‘tang. Plus, he’s Steve Martin, not Robert Redford. Never is there a single moment when the two characters click, and you think, ‘They might be right for each other’. Now, this might seem to augur that they are doomed- and they are, after Ray cheats on Mirabelle, and their relationship is never what it had been. But, the film sustains itself on subtle hints that Mirabelle is not all she appears to be- she is an artist after all. Jeremy, on the road, has been reading relationship books with his rock star pal, all in the hopes of coming back to town rich, successful, and able to woo Mirabelle. The audience is clearly rooting for him, but the reason that he feels success will impress Mirabelle is again, only hinted at. Martin wisely does not give too much into why this is so, and for the most part such mystery in her character works. Except for the whole major plotline of the film - why would Mirabelle give Ray the time of day, much less her body and soul? And why would she expect anything in return from this cold fish? He is a cold fish. Ray is clearly playing sincere with Mirabelle, for he has a wholly different demeanor in his scenes away from Mirabelle. This adds to the underlying creepiness to Ray’s character that Martin highlights with looks and lustful gestures and fondles of Mirabelle. Yet, after their first date she eagerly undresses and is waiting for him in his bed.

The other big flaw is that the film is intruded upon several times by Martin’s voice narrating from his novella, upon which the film is based. While the words are good, and much better than most contemporary published fiction, there really is no need for them. First, we are not certain that the narrator is Martin as an omniscient, or Martin as Ray, in retrospect, and this can give a far different spin on how the whole film is interpreted- as a first or third person tale. Secondly, the narrations make a fairy tale out of what is a very good piece of realistic drama, granting the male fantasy aspect since rich older men, in fact, often seek young trophy babes- far better than the similarly themed Lost In Translation (for Danes and Martin are much better in their roles than Scarlett Johansen and Bill Murray in theirs). Thirdly the narrations state the manifest that the film and actors alone should and can carry. Near the end this occurs twice, and both times it severely undercuts very well written scenes, as if Martin either did not believe in the dramatic power of the scenes, or was too entranced with the sound of his own words and voice, and indulged himself.

The first time occurs after Ray and Mirabelle split, after an insensitive comment from Ray finally wakes her up to the fact that he’s been using her. Martin waxes poetic on their thinking of each other and not realizing they were still connected. The words are nice, but this is a romantic comedy- the audience knows what is going on at that moment. Even worse, a few minutes later, Martin again intrudes, after Mirabelle and Jeremy are in love, and she has her first exhibit as an artist. She and Ray go outside to catch up, and Ray admits he did love Mirabelle, but she returns to Jeremy. The camera pulls back, and no words are needed to tell us what the moment is about. Martin does a good acting job of expressing a cipher’s loneliness. Yet Martin’s narration intrudes and rhapsodizes on love and loneliness, and destroys the moment. It really takes a potentially great filmic moment and makes it merely a good one. This same impulse is what led to the rather haphazard and unrealistic pairing of Ray and Mirabelle in the first place. Yet, Martin and Danes are so good that the viewer can forgive that flaw.

The intrusive narration, however, is a more fundamental problem, and should have been excised by director Anand Tucker, who did 1998’s Hilary And Jackie - an arts film success. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is excellent, especially so for the characters, more so than Los Angeles- although that is well filmed, too. You get a different L.A. than that usually seen by Hollywood, which holds what can only be described as contempt for the larger city that surrounds it. Also, Danes is not idealized by her lighting, although she represents ideals to Ray and Jeremy - that being the nubile lover to a rich old man, and the soulmate to Jeremy. She is not seen as a goddess, but as a real woman - who, as an artist, is naturally on anti-depressants (until she abandons them in an attempt to see whether her growing love for Ray will fill that void- although this is not a plausible reason for why she likes Ray in the first place), and this difference highlights the best part of the film, in trusting the audience to get that fact, and the film’s failure, in not allowing the screenplay to similarly be naturalistic and understate things. Another weak point is the overdone and intrusive scoring by Barrington Pheloung, which is far too melodramatic, and, like the narration, tries to lead the audience to emotional peaks when the acting and scene should (and does) do that without it.

On the plus side there are some very nice filmic touches. A funny side scene occurs in which a bleached blond bimbo trophy wife to be, played by Bridgette Wilson, a rival of Mirabelle’s from the store, seduces Jeremy at an art gallery show, when she sees him with Mirabelle, and thinks he’s her rich sugar daddy named Ray, whom she hopes to steal. The irony is that she is exactly the sort of vapid woman that Ray really wanted a fling with, not the earnest Mirabelle. Although the overall fairy tale arc is overdone, there are some nice scenes where we see into Mirabelle’s apartment from above, and there is a sense that perhaps a musical, along the lines of Moulin Rouge, will break out. Instead, the reason for this is to tell us that Mirabelle is not alone in her loneliness and depression. As the camera pulls out from her apartment and the skylight, the audience sees her alone. Then it pans back, and she becomes a spot of light, a star, one of many in Los Angeles, and then the very universe as the reveal pulls back to the heavens. Also, as said, Martin’s decision to walk the line and never reveal whether Ray is genuine or a dirty old creep is the correct one, one which Woody Allen has never gotten in his numerous films where he’s a pathetic old skirtchaser, but does not realize it. We sense Ray does, and this may be why he eventually backs off, or rather makes Mirabelle see who he really is, and why never pursues Mirabelle beyond bed. There is another nod to Allen, specifically Annie Hall, in a scene where Ray is telling his shrink he was clear to Mirabelle about his intentions, interspersed with Mirabelle gossiping with her work girlfriends about being just as clear that Ray is not using her. Both had the same conversation, yet said and heard different things.

With so much going for it, the film’s flaws only frustrate the viewer that much more, for sans the intrusive narrations and score, and with a little more depth to Mirabelle and her past, this could have truly been a film for the ages. Danes shows that she is the best twentysomething actress around, and has the most potential since Gwyneth Paltrow became a star in the late 1990s. The film could get her an Oscar, but, even though the Academy looks down on comedies and comic actors, it is Schwartzman who deserves at least a nomination. If Danes is a younger Paltrow, then he is a younger John Cusack. As it is, though, Shopgirl is still one of the better films and romantic comedies you’ll see. Yet - ah, to wish upon a….

© Dan Schneider November 2005
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