B+Director: Anand Tucker
Cast: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman
here are two Steve Martins. There is Steve Martin, the witty, warm, and philosophical author responsible for Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Roxanne, LA Story, and occasional contributions to The New Yorker. And then there is Steve Martin, star of Bringing Down the House.
Shopgirl is a movie written by the former Steve Martin about the latter Steve Martin.
In his new movie, Steve Martin presents us with his take on the popular-of-late melancholy patriarch epitomized by Bill Murray’s post-Rushmore career and more recently developed by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. Martin’s Ray Porter, however, does not suffer from the sting of compromised ideals, as Lost In Translation’s Bob Harris does, nor does he suffer from the sheer inability to compromise ideals like The Squid in the Whale’s Bernard Berkman. No, Martin’s Ray Porter is a much sadder fellow: he is a man who has traded in his ideals and has given up all hope of ever getting them back.
It is through the retrospection of this empty man that we are introduced to Shopgirl’s heroine: the slender, plain, and ostensibly mediocre Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a casualty of Generation Debt floating aimlessly in the suburban sea of Los Angeles. And it is through this perspective that we come to love her. After all, who can appreciate innocence and innate decency better than a cynic?
When we first meet Mirabelle, she is directionless, working a dead-end job at Saks, spending her nights alone with her cat, drawing and reading. Early on, she is briefly courted by someone her own age, a terminally-broke “font-designer” cut from the “slacker” cloth named Jeremy (humanized and saved from the dregs of cliché by Jason Schwartzman), who has big plans but a decided lack of social sophistication or stability. After a few awkward dates and an unceremonious fuck session, Jeremy’s job takes him on the road, and Mirabelle begins to see Ray, an older man of refined tastes who is completely insulated, emotionally and otherwise, by his wealth.
It’s at this point that it becomes apparent that Shopgirl is not a romantic comedy; it is aiming at something more sophisticated, truer, and harder to watch. The tension does not come from wondering how the characters will inevitably end up together, rather from the knowledge of the ultimate decay of the relationship. At its most base level, this is a sex-for-dollars situation, no matter what niceties and sentiments the characters try to apply to it. And though we sense Mirabelle’s inevitable hurt from the onset of her affair with Ray, the film deftly encourages us to hope along with Mirabelle that somehow she will break through Ray’s shell and he will love her back. And when he doesn’t, we feel her heartbreak.
Director Anand Tucker slowly rolls out this story at a good pace, using landscapes as touchstones for the character’s thought processes and emotional states, whether it’s Ray soaring above Seattle in his private jet, deep in abstract contemplation, Jeremy humbly self-evaluating as he rolls along the Midwestern plains in a tour bus, or Mirabelle driving along the LA freeway, isolated and lonely, tuned in to the platitudinous psychology of talk radio.
Though Tucker’s directing of the camera is occasionally grandiose (an unnecessary CG macro shot which glides in between rows of tower-like makeup cases springs to mind), for the most part he does himself a favor and stays out of the actors’ way, allowing Danes, Schwartzman, and Martin to flesh out the acutely observed screenplay. There are a few moments of brilliance as well, particularly during the first night that Ray and Mirabelle spend together, where a couple of decisive lens choices and well-timed cuts heighten the bewildering excitement and expectation of the imminent sex.
But in the end, the strength of the film is in the acting and the writing. Schwartzman is good as always, bringing much-needed levity, while Danes and Martin give what may be their most accomplished film performances yet. In fact, the most important moments in the delicate narrative turn on the slightest nuances—a longing glance, a mumbled word, an unspoken understanding seen in the eyes at the dawning of realization.
Shopgirl is not a perfect or profound film, but like all of Martin’s best work, the difficult and tender emotions that motivate and inspire it are real, raw, and uncalculated. Which, sadly, is rare thing to see at the movies.
By: Ben Dickinson
Published on: 2005-11-15