March 10, 2016
Shopgirl – US, 2005
Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl, based on Steve Martin’s novella of the same name, is a bit of an oddity. It is ostensibly about a woman being pursued by two men, but that storyline is dropped almost as quickly as it begins. Perhaps dropped is the wrong word – put on pause is a better description, for whenever a film follows a character as he goes about doing his own thing, we know he’ll come back into the picture sooner or later.
The woman at the center of the film is Mirabella Buttersfield (Claire Danes), a young woman who has recently moved to New York in the hopes of finding a new life and possibly a new love. She hasn’t had much luck. Towards the beginning of the film, we watch as she mans the scarf counter at Saks Fifth Avenue and has to try hard not to fall asleep. When she leaves for the day, no one seems to notice, and her home life seems to consist of a cat, television, and not much else. Danes has always been a good actress, and here, she is able to establish a character with just brief glances, polite smiles, and expressions that can go from hesitant to pleasant in the blink of an eye.
The film is narrated by Steve Martin, although it is never exactly clear why. Is his voice-over a confessional, excerpts from a yet unpublished book, or just a clever way of getting the most out of the film’s most famous star? The voice could just as easily have been someone else’s, and the effect would have been the same. The two men in the film are, of course, polar opposites. The first of these characters is Jeremy Kraft (Jason Schwartzman), an eccentric young man who is also the embodiment and combination of every stereotype we have of both artists and rockers. When he and Miranda first meet, it is obvious that they are a mismatch, but in movies, mismatches are often transitory. If he just cleans up a bit, combs his hair, and learns a little about romance, we just know he’ll fit the bill eventually. Mirabella’s other suitor is Ray Porter (Martin), an older divorcee who has made quite a fortune, yet not found happiness. Porter offers fun, travel, fancy clothes, and 5-star restaurants. What he cannot offer is conversation or intimacy.
And here is the film’s biggest problem. There is little time for the film to develop anything more than a relationship of convenience between Mirabella and Jeremy. In fact, it appears that she sleeps with him because a self-help program says that women can get the comfort they need by being with people they don’t necessarily like very much. In other words, the film is arguing that women need not be in love with the person they sleep with. This is not revolutionary, yet it does establish Mirabella as a liberated woman who knows her needs and is confident enough in herself to pursue them. A lesser film would show Mirabella kicking herself for being with Jeremy; here, she just goes on with her life.
Given Mirabella’s reaction to Jeremy, her rapid emotional attachment to Ray is somewhat surprising. Convincing audiences that this relationship is different than the one she had with Jeremy requires dialogue and the establishment of mutual experiences and like personalities. At the very least, we need a moment that makes in clear that they have had an instant connection, the kind that protagonists are often confused and excited. Simply put, the film gives us none of these. Instead, we are treated to a series of awkward exchanges, brief, strained conversations (“I can see your apartment from my house!”), and occasional acts of spontaneity that would surely impress, but not likely lead to genuine feelings. This is unfortunate, for the film clearly wants us to believe that Mirabella is falling in love with Ray. It shouldn’t have. A smarter film would treat Ray just as it does Jeremy and allow Mirabella to remain confident in herself and her decisions. Here, as in Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, sex inevitably leads to love, and this is simply not accurate.
Also hurting the film is its confusion about its genre. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or straight drama. The scenes with Jeremy are comically awkward, and Schwatzman handles these with remarkable ease. A scene in which the music he is rocking out to is abruptly replaced with a self-help lecture is hilarious, particularly because of his physical and facial reactions to the change. The scenes with Ray play more seriously, and this gives the film an uneven structure, as it fluctuates from moments of sheer lunacy to ones of potential heartbreak. The change can be jarring. After all, the human brain does not like randomness; it looks for connections. Here, there are few to be found, and the effect was the creation of distance rather than totality.
There are parts of the film that work quite well. In spite of the fact that film has not established their relationship well, I rather enjoyed the middle section of the film, which focuses almost exclusively on Ray and Mirabella. Martin is one of those rare actors, gifted at both comedy and drama, that can convey loneliness and self-destructive tendencies with just his eyes. In several moments, we see hints of a man who wants to take a chance and open up, yet never gives himself permission to do so, and I did indeed feel some empathy for his character. However, it is Danes who owns the film, making up for the script’s failings by drawing us in and allowing us to understand the experience of being swept away by a man of means and not allowing yourself to see the obvious signs that nothing good can come out of it. Fortunately, there’s that other guy out there. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars