The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, September 27, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Shopgirl

Originally published 11/1/05
Full review behind the jump


: Anand Tucker
: Steve Martin, based on his novella
: Ashok Amritraj, Jon J. Jashni, Steve Martin
: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras

It’s just right that Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) drives a used blue pickup with a couple of dents. That’s the hand-me-down vehicle your parents give you when you’re moving from Vermont to Los Angeles.
Shopgirl, adapted by Steve Martin from his novella of the same name, is charmingly, movingly just right in so many of its details – from the way money affects our interactions with people despite our best intentions, to the fine parsing of language that allows two people in a relationship to each see it in a way that pleases them, and both be wrong.

In this romantic drama the broad strokes might be familiar, but the willingness to paint each of its three leads in shades of gray and allow them to grow rejuvenates what’s familiar and makes the rest magical. Mirabelle is young, beautiful, hoping to establish herself as an artist. She gazes out at the world from the rarely-visited glove counter at Saks Fifth Ave. in Beverly Hills and has $40,000 in student loans she’s paying off at $45 a month. She longs for some kind of connection to close the distance she feels from everyone else – even her apartment is at the end of a peculiar series of stairways she must walk up, then down.

Not too promising at first is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a stencil artist for a local amp dealer who finds a roundabout way to hit her up for change at the Laundromat. He’s one of those people who totally lacks a mental filter, and whose tragedy is to always find the worst possible moment to reveal he’s thinking about something inappropriate. But in his scattered, clumsy way he’s interested in her, so she’s willing to try him on for size and the awkwardness of their union earns as many cringes as laughs.

This is a clue to how the movie works – nothing happens right the first time, and it’s never the candlelit consummation followed by happily ever after. People screw up, hurt each other, humiliate themselves, and learn from it.

So exit Jeremy to travel cross-country with a rock band, where he listens to motivational CDs from his tour bus bunk. And enter Ray Porter (Steve Martin), who buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle then tracks down her address and mails them to her. He’s wealthy enough to never really think about what things cost, and works as a “symbolic logician” in the computer field. He looks like he’s given up trying to tell people what that means, or maybe isn’t sure himself.

Ray showers her with gifts and attention, is unfailingly polite and sensitive and patient. He treats her with tenderness and she responds, but is it genuine love for her or the sort of fondness you have for a piece of furniture people are forbidden to put their feet on? Everything in Ray’s two houses seems spotless, and unused. He’s distant and cautious, and tells anyone who will listen that he is using her for sex and amusement when he’s in town and she understands the arrangement. This is caddish and in most movies it would be enough, but in Shopgirl, there’s significant evidence that Ray is lying to himself here. Some instinctive part of him is beginning to love in spite of his efforts to keep her as a prize.

Watch the way he swings into action when she answers the phone in tears. If you’ve ever known anyone who takes anti-depressants, you’ll recognize with apprehension the moment Mirabelle decides to stop taking them, the effervescence she shows in the next scenes (Danes is perfect in these moments, never forcing or spelling out what’s happening in her head), and this bedridden crash that follows. Again, just right. I think if Ray Porter were as awful as he’s trying to be, he would see her as defective merchandise after this episode and separate himself. That he sticks with her adds only more sadness to later mistreatments.

Suffice it to say that Jeremy eventually re-enters Mirabelle’s world and we reach some resolution about her future potential with Ray. This takes place all over the strange landscape of Los Angeles, which in most movies is the city where you get mugged or addicted to drugs or killed in an earthquake. But Martin and director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) shows us that L.A. has beauty, too – from the mansions in the hills to the colorful apartments that might as well have “struggling artists welcome” on banners, from eclectic restaurants to hoity-toity art openings in Beverly Hills, where everything seems to glow.

Those familiar with L.A. Story or Martin’s prose work will recognize the mix of precise verbiage and flights of graceful nonsense, and the laughs are plenty. If the movie has any flaw, it’s that sometimes Tucker hangs in too long for an extra laugh or two. The patient and delicate emotional progress of the story is nudged out of rhythm.

Danes is luminous, coming into the full-flower of screen adulthood but with perfectly-calibrated vulnerability. All three leads are excellently observed, and show us not only uncommon depth, but glimpses of real organic lives. What is conveyed when Mirabelle stares across a room at her mother (Frances Conroy) then makes the decision she makes? It’s not important for the movie to be concrete, but since the decision surprises us, we’re inspired to wonder.

And Martin’s generosity as a writer works further down the cast list, too: Bridgette Wilson-Sampras has a hilarious turn as a catty Saks perfume salesman. See how she indicates the emotional intent of what she’s about to say with the way she flips her hair. She can flip it in a lot of different ways. And see how she’s full of perfectly horrible advice for Mirabelle about how to land a man. Mirabelle listens politely and replies that she couldn’t do any of that. When pressed, she explains: “I’m from Vermont”. That’s just right, too.


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