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SHOPGIRL (R) (2005)


Official Site

Director: Anand Tucker

Producers: Ashok Amritraj, Jon J. Jashni, Steve Martin

Written by: Steve Martin

Cast: Steve Martin, Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson, Sam Bottoms, Frances Conroy, Rebecca Pidgeon


There’s an obvious comparison to be made between Shopgirl and 2003’s Lost In Translation, but Martin actually got there first, writing his novella in 2000. Yes, it’s a novella, and that echt-literary designation right there should’ve prepared me for the horridly bookish voiceover that opens the movie, as the camera weaves through acres of desirable stuff for sale to finally rest upon Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes), the titular shopgirl.

Mirabelle lives in splendid solitude in L.A., with only her job, her little apartment, her pickup truck, and her cat. Retail must pay pretty damn good in L.A… but I digress. One night at the laundromat, a stereotypical slacker dude attempts to befriend her. She’s unimpressed, but later, her isolation drives her to give Jeremy (Schwartzman) a call. They have a less-than-successful date, partly because Jeremy is rather childish and utterly clueless (though adorably cute in a pathetic way). But our Cinderella gets to go to the ball after all; she gets picked up at work by the charming, and much older, Ray Porter (Martin). When the suave Martin glides onto the scene, appearing at Saks’ glove counter where Mirabelle works, I was almost surprised he didn’t have theme music. Something like, oh, “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Definitely impressed by classiness, Mirabelle accepts a dinner invitation and begins an affair with Ray, throughout which he showers her with material generosity.

So, uh, she’s a mistress. And what’s so special about this? That it’s quaint? That it’s old-fashioned in a way, just like the term shopgirl? Some pretty ham-handed points about female commodification get made, like the scene where Mirabelle tries on a birthday present from Ray, then models it for him, wearing a price tag.

Oh sigh. I’ve read and heard reviews from people who loved this movie, reviewers I respect (see particularly A.O. Scott), so I was really looking forward to it and was really disappointed by it. Shopgirl is not as affecting as it would like to be, though I know I’ll watch it again someday. The major flaws are the utter lack of subtlety and credibility in Martin’s story.

Ray is hard for me to believe, and Martin’s performance (from the same restrained-comedian textbook that Bill Murray and Jim Carrey recently studied) is no help. When he picks her up, Mirabelle wonders “Why me?” and I too wondered, “Why her?” If Ray had any spark of life at all—maybe even just, “I’m loaded and tasteful, and I’m going to have the adventure of keeping a young mistress!”—I could’ve gone along. Instead, he just seems to be adding Mirabelle to some collection of his.

The movie follows Mirabelle and her two radically different suitors, and in the end the two young folks have changed but the old fart hasn’t. Though actually, Jeremy doesn’t seem to change much; he just gets cleaned up. But that somehow makes Mirabelle able to see him, the way Ray’s shined shoes and snappy suit caught her attention in the first place. That’s not to her credit, but then Martin has made plain some rather unflattering notions about women before (Bowfinger, for example). At any rate, Jeremy—who, unlike Mirabelle and Ray, has no last name—seems to be the same guy, just turned down from 11. Originally he’s way too twitchy and quirky to be real, I guess to contrast with Ray, who barely seems to have a pulse. A very wintry Steve Martin here. Why doesn’t Mirabelle wonder “Why me?” about Jeremy’s regard for her?

This movie only has moments of actual life when Jeremy, even with his too-muchness, is on screen, and when Mirabelle’s gold-digging co-worker, Lisa (Wilson), feral teeth flashing, is embroiled in a classic mistaken identity gag with him. When Martin has a segment of classic comedy to work with, his movie (and I think we must say it’s his movie far more than Anand Tucker’s) comes alive and actually touches our feelings. Just not, perhaps, the deeper, more adult emotions Martin wants to touch. But eminently watchable characters whose motivations are opaque are just pretty pictures.

What does Mirabelle love about Ray? He’s nice to her and obviously appreciates her and gives her stuff, but what is it about him that keeps her involved? Martin is so unavailable in this performance, what’s puzzling us is most definitely the nature of his game.

All in all, this seems an old-fashioned entertainment, a modern-day Gigi—after all, it is the old, old story of a man and a maid. (There seems to be some idea that Jeremy, too, becomes an adult by story’s end, but his transition is unclear. Having him off-stage for most of his metamorphosis doesn’t help. All we see is his better clothes.) Martin’s annoyingly bookish voiceover—again—at the end, also makes this a middlebrow entertainment, telling us explicitly what the filmmakers apparently didn’t trust us to suss out for ourselves. Or maybe he just loves the sound of his own words? The only reason I mention what “brow” this is, is that Martin et al. clearly aspire to create a production for the clerisy.

Lovely to look at , but movies should move, in every sense. This here will fit nicely in the still-life gallery of Martin’s art collection.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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Itís worth a matinee ticket.

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