Note: This review was contributed by James Rocchi.
Money, Money changes everything
Money, money changes everything
We think we know what we're doin'
That don't mean a thing
It's all in the past now
Money changes everything …
– "Money Changes Everything", The Brains
At the opening of Shopgirl, the camera soars above a vast and sprawling city, seen at night, and finally comes to rest on a single, shabby apartment. Claire Danes plays Mirabelle, an L.A. salesgirl with a low-wage job, college loan repayments and a lonely life. She simultaneously meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a low-ambition slacker, and Ray (Steve Martin) an older, wealthy man whose wealth and things are a thin veneer over his own lonely life. Mirabelle winds up with Ray, and theirs is a tale of consuming love – but that consuming isn’t actually in the sense of the word we first think of when we see that phrase...
Adapted by Martin from his own novella, Shopgirl makes an interesting counterpoint to L.A. Story, similarly penned-by and starring Martin. In both films, Los Angeles is portrayed as a crushing, bustling place of isolation – a city so crowded you never actually meet any people. It’s also worth noting that Shopgirl and L.A. Story both echo each other with specific shots; Martin, it seems, has a fondness for contrasting pairs of people looking out windows. He also has a nicely-tuned understanding of the pitfalls this story might hold, and a sense of irony that keeps the film in a broader view, like a traveler holding a map at arm’s length so he can get a better perspective on it. Early on, watching Mirabelle, we hear Martin’s dry, familiar voice explain that “What Mirabelle needs is an omniscient voice to illuminate and spotlight her. …”
But Martin also has a relatively well-tuned ear for dialogue, and Shopgirl doesn’t have the silly surrealism of L.A. Story’s signifying signposts and armed commuters; instead, it has a sort of shabby magical realism to it, as stars become streetlights in shots artfully composed by longtime Cronenberg cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who seems to have brought his work to a whole new and different level with this film; there are moments here of pale and trembling realism, as well as subtly-shifting glimpses of the wonderful in the everyday.
Directed by Anand Tucker, Shopgirl pulls a nice bit of slight-of-hand by consistently playing against our expectations. When we meet Jeremy, he’s a unshaven ratchet-jawed doofus trying to pick up Mirabelle in a Laundromat. “Hi. I’m Jeremy. I’m an okay guy, by the way.” Of course, there’s the reality that no person who is in fact an okay guy feels the need to pronounce it from the outset; on their first date, Jeremy is quite capable of asking his date to lend him some money so they can go see a film. It’s easy to have sympathy for Jeremy because, frankly, if you got through your mid-20’s without being Jeremy at some point you are either of upstanding moral character or astonishingly lucky. Schwartzman also moves outside of his usual freaks-and-geeks resume with this performance; if there’s nothing here as quirky as his work in Rushmore or as harrowing as his work in Spun, there’s nothing here as unbelievable as those films, either.
Martin also carries his end of the film in unexpected fashion; Ray is a stiff, snobby guy who’s just lonely enough to try and pick up the cute young girl from the glove counter. Ray’s first and only visit to Mirabelle’s apartment is a nicely-tuned scene, especially as Martin tries, and fails to get up from a dilapidated futon couch with anything resembling dignity. Pretty soon, Ray is inviting Mirabelle to keep a few things at his place to make it easier for her to make it to work on time when she stays over – without considering that perhaps, for Mirabelle, this isn’t a temporary fling. …
As for Mirabelle, she’s a nicely-drawn character brought to life by Danes. Some actress exude wholesomeness; others, raw sex; Danes has always exuded intelligence, even as her characters do what they know are stupid things. Mirabelle is no exception. There’s a moment when Mirabelle is given an expensive dress by Ray; she offers to try it on and returns quickly in a lovely dress, with a smile beaming from her face – and the price tag still dangling down the middle of her back. To some this may be unsubtle (even if my viewing partner never noticed it), but it’s a blunt, real moment in a movie that could have just been a gauzy relationship film: Ray is buying Mirabelle in some ways, and in some ways she is letting him.
Martin says he never though he’d adapt Shopgirl for the screen; hard as that may seem to believe, he’s certainly done a good enough job of it here. It’s interesting that Martin gets to play off both sides of his public perception with the film: Ray has all the silver-haired chillness we’re used to from the older Martin, while the manic and irrepressible Jeremy is, for want of a better phrase, a wild and crazy guy. When Jeremy goes on the road as a speaker roadie for a touring rock band, it gives him some time to think, while Ray’s deepening relationship with Mirabelle is full of missteps and mistakes.
There are little moments in Shopgirl that tug at your attention with a vague sense that something’s off; we only see Mirabelle’s female friends once, as she shares her hopes for her relationship with Ray intercut with Ray telling his shrink how he knows this relationship is not a long-term one. Mirabelle’s truck also seems at odds with her lifestyle and income level – wouldn’t a young woman working for a low wage in L.A. ditch that gas guzzler and get a used Focus or something smaller? – but the fact that these minor things pop out from the movie actually suggests that Martin, as a writer, has gotten the emotional lives of his characters mostly right. (The geopolitics of L.A. are another matter; Shopgirl takes place in the L.A. that, bluntly, white people know. This could be because of Martin’s own life in Los Angeles, but a more charitable observer might suggest that comes out of the film’s pretty single-minded focus on Ray, Jeremy and Mirabelle.)
What Shopgirl winds up being is a meditation on kindness – the blank and absolute need for it, the amazing and awesome fact of it. But it’s also a meditation on money – the way it changes things, how it can be used to speak for us when we can’t think of what to else say, how in all our formless and intangible emotional and personal crises there are some things that are immediate and present and, to quote Spearhead’s Michael Franti, “real like rent.” Shopgirl isn’t a great film, but it pulls off a nice balancing act – between warmth and coolness, between sentiment and cynicism, between hope and worry – that suggests it’s walking on a wire suspended just a little bit above the aspirations and themes of most romantic comedies.