In an era when seemingly every movie made in Hollywood is intended for 14-year-olds or adults with a 14-year-old mentality, it’s remarkable to see a film that actually pays tribute to the benefits of adulthood, of emotional, intellectual, and moral growth and the accepting of responsibility for one’s actions. That feat alone would make Shopgirl a more than worthwhile film, but it offers more than that: a moving love story, well-observed characters, and a plot that has the complications, difficulties, and small victories of life.
Steve Martin adapted the screenplay of Shopgirl from his own thoughtful, searching novella (he also co-produced the film) and, while I love Martin’s early, absurdist films as much as the next guy, I think the two works are the finest things he’s ever created. Martin’s book was an incisive exploration of the various forms that loneliness can take and the desperate need to connect that can drive people into acts that aren’t healthy for anyone involved. His screenplay is faithful to the structure and most incidents of the book, but it adds comic bits to leaven the melancholy tone. Mostly they work out pretty well, although the attempt to bring out the humor in the characters can sometimes descend into caricature.
The story is a simple one: Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) is an artist in her late 20s working a day job at a pricey Beverly Hills department store (Neiman-Marcus in the book, Saks Fifth Avenue in the movie) who goes on a few disastrous dates with Jeremy Kraft (Jason Schwartzman), a socially awkward man-child, but is seemingly rescued when an older man, Ray Porter (Martin), enters the picture and sweeps her off her feet. Complications, necessarily, ensue.
I’ve often wondered why an intelligent, attractive woman without any obvious Daddy issues would want to be in a relationship with a man literally old enough to be her father. Sure, there’s often the promise of greater financial security, or the possibility that he’s more thoughtful and chivalrous than men her own age but, if her intent is really amorous rather than mercenary, why would she choose to be in a relationship with such inherent inequality and so many obstacles to happiness? Shopgirl has one answer. The relationship between Ray and Mirabelle, awkward and tentative at first, develops into one of the most persuasive, complex love stories that I’ve seen in a long time.
When Ray first approaches Mirabelle for a date, she’s bewildered and a bit uncomfortable. She’s not particularly interested in dating an older man, but her recent love life has consisted of a few disastrous evenings with Jeremy, and there are no other prospects on the horizon. Still, she’s hesitant. Is Ray a creepy old man who preys on women half his age? Should she take a chance that he’s not? She allows him to persuade her to go to dinner with him and see what happens; she’s suspicious but curious enough that she has to know more. Ray turns out to be perfectly charming, and his quiet good manners and obvious reverence gradually win her over. Soon she finds herself really falling for him, loving the way he treats her and how his admiration makes her feel, despite his belief that he’s made it clear that this is just a casual affair, no strings attached.
Though Ray tries to keep Mirabelle at arm’s length, he too finds himself more and more deeply involved. Despite the great differences in their ages, financial positions, and the kind of relationships they’re seeking, there’s a genuine parity in their union: Each gets as much as he gives. The benefits Ray derives are obvious, of course: Here’s a beautiful, talented, charming young woman who enjoys his company and makes him feel like a kind of beneficent prince. But Mirabelle derives just as much pleasure from Ray’s doting attention and kindness. No one has ever recognized her beauty and her gifts like Ray does, and no one has ever made her feel so special, so honored.
Martin and Danes both deliver nuanced, understated performances and have far greater chemistry than anyone might have guessed. Danes is able to bring out Mirabelle’s flaws and weaknesses without ever surrendering her dignity. For a character who spends so much time confused and ambivalent about the situations she’s gotten herself into, she’s remarkably poised and self-reliant when she needs to be. And Martin, whose recent career has consisted of so many unnecessary remakes, sequels, and total misfires, utterly redeems himself. This is the kind of career-rebounding performance that Bill Murray gave in Lost in Translation, but it’s completely Martin’s own. He gives Ray a solidity and reserve that’s a marked contrast both to Jeremy, his rival for Mirabelle’s affections, and to Martin’s earlier roles. It’s a performance of absolutely breathtaking confidence and decisiveness. I’ve never thought of Martin as a particularly handsome man or a natural romantic lead, but damned if I didn’t see exactly why Mirabelle would fall for him.
Though his acting is above reproach, Martin does make a misstep in his script. In what must be an attempt to counterbalance the younger man’s obvious advantage, Martin has stacked the deck rather heavily against Jeremy, who’s portrayed as dense, coarse, ill-kempt, and thoroughly juvenile, an eight-year-old in a 25-year-old body. Initially, Jeremy has virtually nothing going for him except that he’s young and kind of cute, if you go for that type. Our first impression is so strong and so negative that it’s difficult to get over it when we see him changing, but change he does. Mirabelle inspires Jeremy toward his first-ever signs of ambition, and his subsequent attempts to make something of his life lead him to a mentor who encourages him to better himself through a questionable course of yoga and meditation DVDs and self-help books. Almost in spite of himself, Jeremy does learn and grow and, when he and Mirabelle later bump into each other, she can see he’s a different man.
The last thing I want to do is give away how things turn out, but it’s pretty easy to see where this is headed. The amazing thing about Martin’s script is how much it makes us care, how deeply we become involved in these characters’ lives even if we can easily figure out where they’ll end up. I found myself rooting for plot developments that, if they had happened, I would now be slamming as implausible. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten so wrapped up in the lives of characters in a film, since I’ve felt so strongly that they were real people and wanted so badly for them to be happy.
This is the small miracle of Martin’s script, which, like the novella, is full of intelligent, hard-won empathy. Martin knows these characters like he knows himself, indeed Ray is obviously somewhat autobiographical, and aspects of Jeremy also resonate with what we know of Martin’s life. But the way in which he gets inside Mirabelle’s head, the way he understands her motivations and weaknesses and strengths, is a real achievement. She is a particular, complex person with a real store of insights and resources.
The film’s direction, by Anand Tucker, seems a little self-consciously arty at first, but it fits the tone of the story, and Tucker does put some wonderful images on the screen, visual equivalents of Martin’s elegant, measured prose. The world of the film — juxtaposing tony shops and homes in Beverly Hills with dark, dinky apartments in Silverlake — is precisely observed, and the scenes between Danes and Martin fairly crackle with unexpected eroticism. Shopgirl is a beautiful, wise, and fascinating film. See it with someone you know you shouldn’t love.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()