Shopgirl (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) from a screenplay by Steve Martin (adapting his novella), ventures into Lost in Translation territory. Although the relationships in this film are overtly romantic and sexual (as opposed to what was simmering beneath the surface in Translation), there's the same sense of longing and poignancy, and a recognition of spirits touching, then passing by. This is a smart, adult romance that rarely panders to clich├ęs, and gives up the heady bliss of most such movies in favor of something bittersweet.

Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes), who moved from Vermont to Los Angeles "to find a better life," works behind a counter in the glove department at Saks Fifth Avenue. She leads a lonely life, drifting from day-to-day, while carrying $39,000 in unpaid student loans and having only a cat to greet her every day when she returns home from work. Desperate for human warmth and contact, she falls into a relationship with Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a "font designer" who picks her up at a laundromat. Their fling ends when Jeremy decides to go on a rock-and-roll road trip and Mirabelle heads in another direction. That "other direction" is represented by computer executive Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a commitment-phobe who appears like Sir Galahad to Mirabelle. He's interested in sex with no strings, but she wants more. They have a discussion laying down the parameters of their relationship, but each interprets the words differently. Yet, despite his stated intentions, Ray's actions are more like those of a man besotted than a man looking for a casual liaison.

One tends to associate Martin with comedy, but Shopgirl is a dramatic piece. There are humorous bits (including an instance of mistaken identity that allows Jeremy to score unexpectedly) but, taken as a whole, the movie goes for the heart, not the funny bone. Ten years ago, it might have been unthinkable to accept that Martin has outgrown his "wild and crazy guy" image but, considering the many serious roles he has accepted since Father of the Bride, Shopgirl seems more like the next step in his evolution rather than a surprise.

There are some missteps. The most obvious of these is the way Ray and Mirabelle's story is occasionally interrupted to keep us apprised of Jeremy's misadventures. Although much of the humor comes from these scenes, they are unwelcome deviations. Our emotional energy is invested in Ray and Mirabelle; every time Jeremy makes an appearance, we want to get back to the main story. Plus, Jeremy's continuing presence is a dead give-away that his role in Mirabelle's life is not over. While Shopgirl's success does not demand a surprise ending, based on the way the film is structured, it's not difficult to guess how things are going to turn out.

Claire Danes, after disappearing for several years, has returned as an adult actress. Following Stage Beauty, this is the second straight movie in which she has agreed to a nude scene (it's tastefully done - an artistic rear shot). She doesn't have great range, but, when cast in a role that doesn't demand too much stretching, she can be effective. Mirabelle is that kind of part. Danes also has the ability to transform from frumpy to attractive with only a few changes, and that's an asset here. Martin, as low-key as he has ever been, almost seems to be channeling Bill Murray at times. Schwartzman is more annoying than endearing, but that's his specialty.

Most of the time, romance is a convenient Hollywood convention - something that can be sold to readers of Harlequin paperbacks. Rarely do we see a film that treats the subject seriously - exploring the highs and lows, the deflating disappointments, the desperate second-chances, the awkward moments, and the delicious yearning. Shopgirl does all of these things. It is not as strong a movie as Lost in Translation, nor does it leave as indelible a psychological imprint, but it will find favor with many who liked Sofia Coppola's venture into similar territory.

Shopgirl (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1