Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

More Shopgirl reviews

National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada)
October 21, 2005 Friday
National Edition
ARTS & LIFE; Chris Knight; Pg. B1
Danes and Martin great in the Saks
Chris Knight, National Post


I loved Broken Flowers, the movie that starred Bill Murray as an ageing playboy revisiting the women of his youth; but a lot of people, including Robert Fulford writing in this paper, complained that it was deadpan with the emphasis on "dead." To them I say, give Shopgirl a try. It's not the thrill-a-minute ride that is Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (this weekend's other L.A. story), but it's a tender tale of love with an identifiable heartbeat.

Steve Martin wrote the novella Shopgirl, adapted it very closely for the screen, provides an odd bit of opening and closing narration taken straight from the book and stars as Ray Porter, which makes sense since the character is at least partially based on the author. Ray is, like Murray's Don Johnston in Broken Flowers, an unattached, affluent man in his late fifties whose wealth is never fully explained but seems to have been spawned by a dot-com.

Unlike Don, Ray is not content to sit in his well-appointed home mooning over the past. He walks into Saks Fifth Avenue, buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle (Claire Danes), then sends them back to her with a note asking her to dinner. Mirabelle is already in the early stages of being wooed by Ray's polar opposite, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a twentysomething font designer (was there ever a less urgent need than new fonts?) whose quivering libido causes him to jump on her like a nervous badger at the first sign of romantic sparks.

Just about the time Ray enters the picture, however, Jeremy leaves town to pursue a career as a roadie/amplifier salesman with a rock band. He won't be back for a while, robbing us of a Martin/ Schwartzman showdown, which would have been an appealing echo of the 1998 Murray/ Schwartzman bout in Rushmore. It also leaves Ray free to pursue Mirabelle without direct competition; however this romance blooms or withers, he will have only himself to blame.

Shopgirl the book is a narrative that focuses on feelings and internal dialogue, and includes such terrifically unfilmable sentences as "they exchanged exactly one semi-humorous line each." On the screen, people actually have to speak specific lines, but Martin and director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) also manage a lot with silences. Take the scene in which Ray and Jeremy are each at home, watching football on TV and eating takeout while standing at their kitchen counters; their body language (and the difference in the quality of their meals) speaks volumes about the similarities between these two members of the male species, and how the australopithicine Jeremy might yet evolve into Ray Porter, homo prosperous.

Mirabelle is an artist from Vermont with stolid, American Gothic parents and a depressive streak requiring daily medication. She's also the object of Ray's and Jeremy's desires, which again makes for a complicated concept to put on the screen. Tucker replicates the book's mostly male gaze clumsily, by more than once showing Mirabelle drying her hair or shaving her legs. Danes does a better job at portraying a fragile woman whose wide, unblinking stare is so appealing to behold that the men in her life seldom wonder what the view is like from her side. She obviously has feelings, but Danes' carefully neutral smile is the look of a woman who has learned not to show her cards too soon.

There are some beautiful parallels besides the kitchen scene; Ray travels by private jet from Seattle to L.A. and back, sipping champagne, while Jeremy's bus trips are slower and more meandering, but ultimately more revelatory. ("I've been reading a lot of books on tape," he later tells Mirabelle.) Martin uses points like this (and the more obvious ones, like Jeremy's crappy beater v. Ray's two identical luxury cars) to posit the differences between age 25 and 55, the move from hostel to hotel, from coach to business class, from fries to lobster.

What doesn't change is our ability to confuse sex with love, to talk endlessly yet never be understood, probably because we never really understand ourselves. In Martin's world view, love is a many squandered thing. That may sound melancholic, but it's the kind of melancholy that moves us closer to an ultimately unattainable state of romantic grace.


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