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Shopgirl (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 October 2005
This warm, sensitive and funny movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival this year, winning a lot of well-deserved praise. Director Anand Tucker, new to me, adopts a careful, measured style, essentially formal but not mannered. The cast is very good, particularly Claire Danes, the shopgirl of the title, and Steve Martin, the older man who becomes interested in her. Martin, a co-producer, also wrote the novella the film is based on, as well as the script.

Danes is Mirabelle, a young woman in her 20s who’s come to Los Angeles from Vermont. She works at a branch of Sacks Fifth Avenue as the clerk in the desk shop, and lives alone with a cat in a typical L.A. apartment. Emotionally, she’s still pretty much the same way she was in high school; she’s shy, a bit awkward and gangly, and very lonely.

One night at a laundromat she meets even more awkward and gangly Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who’s as clumsy in his approach to her as she is in her response. (Their body language in their scenes together is superb.) He works for an amplifier company, designing their logos and stenciling the equipment. He is very fond of fonts. On their first date, he takes her to lively, colorful and somewhat vulgar Universal City Walk. Not to eat, not to go to a movie, but just to sit and watch the signs. He finds it peaceful. Their attempt at sex is tentative, badly planned and basically unsuccessful, but afterward they stay in touch—clumsily and tentatively.

Ray Porter (Martin), a well-dressed older man with a sense of humor buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle—who’s very surprised when they arrive at her apartment as a gift for her. Although he also is somewhat tentative, Ray’s very different from Jeremy. He’s wealthy; he works for a computer company as a symbolic logician and has homes both in Seattle and Los Angeles. He frequently flies back and forth between them in the company jet. He’s a divorcée, in his mid to late fifties, kind, thoughtful and amusing.

But after they make love, he tells Mirabelle that he’s not interested in a permanent relationship. Unfortunately, as we see in contrasting scenes of her talking to friends and Ray talking to his (never seen) psychiatrist, Mirabelle is falling in love with him.

Meanwhile, Jeremy, whose initial ambition is to make amplifiers look cool, falls into a job with Hot Tears, a touring rock band. We occasionally see him as he cruises about the country in the band’s buss. The band leader likes Jeremy and perceives his teenage-like awkwardness, so he presses relationship tapes on him for Jeremy to listen to in his bunk on the bus.
There’s not much story to “Shopgirl;” the plot doesn’t thicken, there are no surprises. It’s a gentle, intelligent look at romantic relationships stranded in the vast openness of L.A. All three of the principals are decent people who respect each other—nobody even gets angry. But both Mirabelle and Jeremy are growing and changing—it’s that time of their life. Both are much more sophisticated, much more comfortable at the end of the movie than at the beginning. The one who doesn’t change—who won’t let himself change—is Ray. He cautiously keeps in check his emotions regarding Mirabelle, and becomes increasingly uncomfortable at his treatment of her. It’s overstating things to say that Ray is a tragic figure, but there’s something melancholy about him, about his fear of emotional commitment. Unlike Mirabelle, he’s already and finally the way he will be the rest of his life; he’s lost the capacity to improve by changing.

“Shopgirl” is remarkably intelligent and compassionate; Danes is terrific, the best she’s ever been. She’s never quite established herself as a known commodity, having appeared in movies as different as “Terminator 3” and “The Hours.” Her features are so strongly defined that she’s just this side of beautiful, but this probably led to that range of roles. There’s both a precision and a warmth to her performance here that I’ve never seen in her before. Her maturing over the course of the understated movie is convincing and welcome; we like her at the beginning, but we like her even more at the end. She’s changed, but she’s still the same person.

I’ve never seen Steve Martin play a nice, ordinary guy before. As The Lonely Guy, even in his family comedies, there’s still some traces of the Wild and Crazy Guy of his earliest years. But there’s nothing like that here in his performance as the wistful and lonely Ray Porter. Ray’s a very decent man, but he’s trapped by his own insecurities.

Jason Schwartzman’s Jeremy is a little too much of a comedy character, though it must be admitted that he’s a very funny comedy character here. Still, the stylization of his performance is somewhat out of kilter with those of Martin and Danes. There’s something a bit tentative about his performance, as if, like his character, he can’t quite commit himself to the task at hand. But this lies more in Martin’s script than in Schwartzman’s performance or Tucker’s directing. There’s never really a point where Jeremy seems involved in what’s going on; he never quite rises above a comic character. But, as admitted, he is very funny.

A potential link between Mirabelle and Jeremy is ignored by everyone. He’s deeply into stenciling his designs on equipment, though we never see him doing this. We do see her working with great concentration on art of her own—and at the end, we learn she, too, has been expressing herself through stencils. It seems odd that these ideas are introduced, but only visually.

The movie is occasionally narrated by Martin, but it’s the author’s voice, not that of Ray Porter. It’s an omniscient point of view, focused for a time on these three people over the course of 14 months. The closing narration is poignant and, like the movie, sensitive and intelligent.

“Shopgirl” is handsomely made, shot in rich widescreen color, and offers a kind of mini-look at Silver Lake in Los Angeles (including the lake itself). Ray and Mirabelle dine at Cha Cha Cha; she chats with her friends at Sunset Junction. In other movies, particularly (of course) “L.A. Story,” Steve Martin has shown that he “gets” Los Angeles; he’s aware of the spread-out nature of the city that can keep people from connecting, but he also loves the city for that same aspect. He embraces sprawl while other writers about the city have usually seemed to denigrate it.

The score by the wonderfully-named Barrington Pheloung is as quiet and understated as the film itself; his strings are very soft and supple, never strident. He even uses marimbas occasionally. He’s British and has been around almost twenty years; “Shopgirl” is evidently his first major film; he gracefully proves that Touchstone was right to invest in him.

Amand Tucker is also stepping up to big studio films with “Shopgirl;” he’s made a few movies with only a little theatrical release. It was daring of Disney to take a chance with him, but it’s paid off, with the only misstep the overstressed comic-actor performance of Schwartzman. The movie is not going to please everyone, but this gentle, wry comedy-drama is, for me, one of the best films of the year.

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