Monday, November 14, 2005

"Shopgirl" offers love for sale


directed by Anand Tucker
starring Steve Martin, Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman
based on the book by Steve Martin

Claire Danes has a face in a thousand. Which is to say, a face that nine hundred ninety-nine out of a thousand passersby might overlook in the street—for it’s not a particularly beautiful face, or even a particularly striking one. But the thousandth will pause and perceive the quality that’s made her a star—an apt phrase in her case, for it’s a quality of luminosity rather than flash or glitter. As such, she’s perfectly cast as the fulcrum of “Shopgirl,”a slight, thoughtful film directed by Anand Tucker and based on Steve Martin’s novella of the same name.

Danes plays Mirabelle Buttersfield, the titular shopgirl, a young woman who’s relocated to Los Angeles from her native Vermont for the vaguest of reasons. She’s not an aspiring actress; she is, however, an aspiring artist who does, occasionally, sell a picture to an undisclosed buyer. By day, she sells gloves at the Saks in Beverly Hills—a counter that looks more like a museum exhibit than a place of commercial exchange. Perhaps that’s why she wears the air of something waiting to be discovered (a point the voice-over narration perceptively, if somewhat unnecessarily, stresses).

Two men present themselves as candidates to save Mirabelle from Eleanor Rigby-dom. The first is an unkempt, financially strapped young fellow named Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who accosts Mirabelle at a laundromat and convinces her to go out with him. Their subsequent encounters (I won’t even call them dates) turn out to be unmitigated disasters that are almost too painful to be funny. There is nothing remotely appealing about Jeremy in his natural state, as far as I could discover.

The second guy, played by Steve Martin, seems at first glance a closer fit for the role of knight in shining armor. His name is Ray Porter, and he’s courtly, charming, and rolling in money. It’s he who “discovers” the girl behind the glove counter; sends her expensive gifts; invites her to dinner at an upscale French restaurant, and then, later, to his home, a little slice of modernist heaven. But the morning after they first sleep together, he tells her that he doesn’t want anything serious. She continues to see him, however—still hopeful, still willing to be courted and charmed, and still patient enough to tolerate what appears to be a chronic state of emotional constipation on Ray’s part.

Both men are, in different ways, clearly wrong for Mirabelle. The million-dollar question is whether either of them can change enough to become her Mr. Right. The movie sets about answering that question, which I won’t spoil by answering. All I’ll say is that of this odd triangle, two end up happy and one ends up sad, if not alone.

There’s no question that “Shopgirl” is beset with serious flaws. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t tell whether the weaknesses derive from the text or from something lost or changed in the transfer. The initial contrast between Jeremy and Ray is overdone, and rather unfair to the former. Nowhere is this more obvious than the film’s treatment of sex: Mirabelle and Ray—too coy; Mirabelle and Jeremy—too grotesque. The one leaves too much to the imagination, thereby aestheticizing it (not that I really want to see Steve Martin and Claire Danes gettin’ jiggy with it); the other leaves far too little, thereby satirizing it. The story does modify and complicate its view of both relationships, but is much less successful in the case of Jeremy, whose character development feels absurdly contrived. Perhaps it wouldn’t if he weren’t made such a caricature at the outset. Ray, on the other hand, slowly starts to take over the story, which shifts subtly from being about Mirabelle to being about Mirabelle’s effect on him. (Then again, whaddya expect? It is, after all, Steve Martin’s story, no doubt drawn from a composite of his own experiences.)

Some of the flaws are definitely external to the story. The voice-over, as already noted, is superfluous. The intrusive, overbearing musical score (composed by Barrington Pheloung, who worked previously with Tucker, to much better effect, on “Hilary and Jackie”) doesn’t match the film’s tone at all. And Tucker seems to have a mild obsession with framing his characters’ pensive mugs in floating leaves—weird for a film that takes place in autumn-free L.A.

And yet, something about the film still lingers with me. It portrays loneliness and self-deception with genuine sensitivity. It shows some compassion and understanding for why people will continue a relationship that they know in their hearts isn’t the right one for them. And while some critics complain about the opacity of the characters, especially Mirabelle, I don’t necessarily perceive this as a flaw. The actors need only hint at what they’re thinking and feeling, which Danes and Martin, at least, do beautifully. Danes has possibly the most expressive eyes of any actress around—they really do seem like windows to the soul—and though she’s kept a lower profile in the past several years, it’s clear from this film that she’s matured considerably as an actress during that time. Martin, too, delivers a nicely understated performance: Once you get over the initial ick factor of his cozying up to a girl young enough to be his daughter, he becomes an oddly poignant figure, despite—or perhaps because of—his selfishness. He goes Bill Murray one better: this is the former funny man who can play a jerk (as opposed to The Jerk), and still make you care what happens to him. Few movies can offer more.

RATING: ** 1/2


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