Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Paternal-esque love

New York Observer
October 31, 2005
CULTURE; Rex Reed, Pg. 20
Happy Danes! Shopgirl Shines
Rex Reed

Mr. Martin is a babe magnet for the kind of girl who wants a lover and a dad all rolled into one.

In the sudden plethora of faceless film stars with more publicity than talent, Claire Danes is a shining exception. With her wistful and querulous combination of distant longing and in-the-moment sensitivity, she is never less than totally committed to every role. Usually erasing her leading men from memory in a single radiant smile, she has a wan but intelligent beauty, and she can act. Shopgirl, adapted by Steve Martin from his novella, is about a May-December love affair between an older man (sensibly and attractively played by Mr. Martin, with plenty of sincerity and no shtick) and a girl young enough to be his daughter. They share the screen, but the movie is really more of a valentine to Claire Danes. She accepts it gracefully.

Lonely and unfocused, college graduate Mirabelle Buttersfield (Ms. Danes) moves from Vermont to Los Angeles to pursue an art career, but to pay off her student loan she is forced to take a job selling gloves at Saks. During the day, she watches waxed zombies from Beverly Hills stretching their mitts into elegant leather she can't afford; at night, she goes home to a modest little apartment where her cat eats better than she does. Suddenly, there are two men in her life--well, make that one man and a hairy doofus who shows no sign of ever passing puberty. The older man is Ray Porter, a wealthy, successful and divorced Lochinvar who is charming, odd, coldly distant and played with exquisite elegance by Mr. Martin. (Why not? He created the role for himself and studied all the angles.) Ray sizes up Mirabelle at Saks and showers her with gifts, offering the reassuring warmth of a father figure without the promise of any long-term commitment.

Simultaneously, she is also romanced by a cretin she meets in a laundromat named Jeremy, played by the almost terminally creepy Jason Schwartzman, who specializes in freaks who speak in grunts and appear to be submental. Small wonder she chooses the older man, since the audience has already chosen him for her. Jeremy is a meathead slacker whose job is a blank (something about designing logos) and whose future is even bleaker. Ray knows how to make a wallflower feel like a debutante, and when he takes her to bed, she sees visions of security that shopgirls on breadline budgets only dream about. But Ray is dogged by problems of his own. He's afraid of women once they've been seduced, he can't show true tenderness, and there's always a glint in his eye in a crowded room that suggests he may be looking for the next best thing. Only as the film progresses and Ms. Danes grows from Bridget Jones to Anna Karenina do we see how vulnerable Mirabelle really is and how deeply Ray lets her down. The fact that she eventually reunites with the oafish Jeremy is a letdown (she deserves better), but even he seems to have taken a toddler's step toward maturity: He buys a razor and a toothbrush.

Carefully constructed by Mr. Martin, the Shopgirl screenplay retains the author's sophisticated literary sensibility and is well served by director Anand Tucker to give a realistic picture of a young woman floating in the cheesy neon pudding of Los Angeles, where individuals struggle to forge meaningful relationships in an atmosphere of superficial values. The fact that the film takes its time involving you in the lives of its characters is to Mr. Martin's credit. The leisurely pace is comforting as cashmere. I liked Shopgirl a lot, mainly because its heart is in the right place and because it is so refreshingly unpretentious.

Ms. Danes never makes a wrong move. The camera responds accordingly, caressing her movements, gazing adoringly into her moist eyes and enhancing her talent the way Frank Borzage celebrated Margaret Sullavan in the close-ups. For Mr. Martin, this is a welcome change of pace after years of regrettably dumb comedies that rely on sight gags for laughs instead of human foibles. I've always preferred his serious side; from the evidence of his books, he's a thoughtful man, and in the character of Ray he has drawn from his best instincts as an actor. Ray is wise and nurturing, but weak when it comes to emotional strength; he's a man who feels deeply but can't show it except in material ways. (What a disaster this movie would be with a blank cartridge like Bill Murray in the lead.) Classy and suave, Mr. Martin is a babe magnet for the kind of girl who wants a lover and a dad all rolled into one, but how many bottles of perfume does it take to make her feel needed? Although he loves Mirabelle in his way, Ray's kind of love doesn't have forever written on it. When she sees the light, I get the feeling that her heartbreak will be temporary.

Jeremy appeals in a different way, because he loves her unselfishly. He might be an idiot, but he wants all of her, not just little fragments. Shopgirl seems to be saying that not loving in the same tempo will undeniably lead to loss, but in a cockeyed reversal of the sexes, it's reassuring to see a movie in which it's the older man who dumps the younger girl instead of the other way around. There are no villains and no victims here, just likeable people, bruised by their own sensitivity. The people at Disney's Touchstone Pictures haven't got a clue how to release, sell, market or publicize a film this special, so it will probably get lost in the overcrowded autumn shuffle. This will be a shame, of course. Soft and muted and irresistibly warm, Shopgirl is a feel-good movie that lingers.


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