Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Friday, October 28, 2005
SF Chronicle liked Shopgirl
San Francisco Chronicle
Feeling down in the dumps? Go shopping. You never know what you'll find.
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
Friday, October 28, 2005
Shopgirl: Drama. Starring Claire Danes, Steve Martin and Jason Schwartzman. Directed by Anand Tucker. (R. 100 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
A man sees a pretty young woman walking down a street or standing behind a store counter, and something about her gets his mind going: "Who is she? How did she get here? What is her life like?" A cynic could file these ruminations under the general category of sex, but their true origins are in longings that sex can't answer.
And then ... well, that's usually it. But in "Shopgirl," Steve Martin takes this commonplace feeling and builds from it, shaping ruminations into art. The film, which he wrote, based on his own novella, is a wistful contemplation of a young woman, directed with a rare combination of delicacy and decisiveness by Anand Tucker. Despite a mannered performance by the unprepossessing Jason Schwartzman, "Shopgirl" is a film of wisdom, emotional subtlety and power.
The director puts his stamp on the material from the opening shots. As a classical string piece plays on the soundtrack, the camera moves through a Saks Fifth Avenue store, finally arriving at Mirabelle (Claire Danes), who stands behind a counter in the glove department, at the center of the frame. This is a confident opening, in that it could easily seem absurdly ostentatious. Instead the effect is one of contemplation and timelessness, as though the movie has chosen to focus on this one person, out of all the people in the universe.
That Mirabelle's story is interchangeable with that of any other young person is emphasized later by an overhead shot showing her lying in bed. The camera moves back, and we see her through the skylight of her small apartment. Then it moves farther back, and she just becomes a spot of light, one of many. Tucker is the director a screenwriter dreams of: He makes big choices and yet all of them serve to underscore the mood that's already in the material.
Two men emerge in Mirabelle's life. First, there's Jeremy, a young fellow played by Schwartzman, who needs a shave. He has no money, no sensitivity and looks as if he sleeps in his clothes. After a couple of nights with him, Mirabelle is ready for something better -- so is the audience -- and that's when she meets Ray (Martin), who's rich, reserved and many years older. He pursues her carefully, with a meticulousness that's either romantic or mechanical. That is, it seems romantic if you're young, but if you're older, you know what he's doing: the gifts, the taking his time, the letting her get used to the idea of an old guy, etc.
Until Martin's arrival, "Shopgirl" is stylish but perfunctory. With the arrival of Martin comes the real intent and interest of the story, which is a study of a relationship between a young woman, offering youth and freshness, and an older man, offering money and a wider world. It's a relationship that is functional in many ways, bringing advantages to each partner. It's also one that comes with an undertone of sadness that can't ever be completely forgotten or ignored.
As Ray, Martin goes through much of the movie looking forlorn, keeping a part of himself distant, even as he feels himself being irresistibly drawn toward her warmth. When he touches her, it's a past-tense kind of touching, as though he's touching her while simultaneously seeing himself through the eyes of her future, or his own, in which he's either a memory or a ghost. He's too old to believe that a moment can be seized or held. Before he has a moment in his hands, it's running through his fingers, and his only defense is to stand back from it and not care.
Much is conveyed through very little. At one point, Mirabelle is happily modeling a new dress he has bought her. The camera moves in, and he brushes his hand gently near her waist. In the shot, we see her midsection and his face, nothing else, and the thought that he seems to be thinking, which comes leaping from the screen, goes something like, "Why are you, through sex, messing with the baby-making apparatus of this fresh young woman, when you really have no intention of giving her the love she deserves and is supposed to have?" And, of course, there is no answer. He's frozen between pulling back and letting go.
It's not surprising that Martin should understand Ray, but he has a compassionate insight into Mirabelle as well, and Danes responds with a distinct, beautifully shaded performance. Schwartzman still presents some problems -- someone told him he's funny, probably the same person who told him not to shave -- but he gets better as the movie goes along. Still, for all the movie's virtues, it's a grim concept, the notion that all a nice shop girl has to hope for is the choice between a morose 60-year-old man and a 25-year-old fellow who can't remember his last bath.
-- Advisory: Sexual situations.