Monday, January 23, 2006

Review - Shopgirl

20th Century Fox and Touchstone Pictures present Shopgirl, Steve Martin's adaptation of the novella by Steve Martin, produced by Steve Martin and starring - you've guessed it - Steve Martin. Despite the fact that Shopgirl is directed by Anand Tucker (making his first film since 1998's Hilary and Jackie), Martin's fingerprints remain visible on almost every aspect of it; so it's only fair that he should take the brunt of the blame for inflicting this nauseating comedy/drama/romance/whatever upon the unsuspecting viewer.

I wanted to like Shopgirl, I really did. I desperately wanted this to be Steve Martin's comeback, the film that would save this immensely gifted comedian from debasing himself in the likes of Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House. Unfortunately the film's insistence on making bad decisions at every turn, its determination to strain for an epic grandeur it can never hope to achieve and - worst of all - the crime of wasting a stellar performance by Claire Danes, soon tested my patience to the limit.

The luminous Danes stars as Mirabelle, a struggling young artist who scrapes a living by working on the glove counter at Saks department store in Los Angeles. Actually, she doesn't seem to do a great deal of work and instead spends much of her time leaning on her counter watching the world go by. She's frustrated, bored and lonely. Mirabelle is so lonely that she accepts a date with Jeremy; a nervy, scruffy and broke young stencil artist who seems to have the mental age of a twelve year-old. Jeremy is played by Jason Schwartzman who recycles his irritating geeky shtick for the umpteenth time. Their date is hardly a success, but fate soon deals Mirabelle an alternative hand.

Fifty-something millionaire Ray Porter (Martin) enters the store and buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle after asking her which pair she prefers. Mirabelle returns home that night to be surprised by a gift waiting at her apartment - the gloves! And they are accompanied by a note saying "I would like to have dinner with you”. When Ray next turns up at the store, Mirabelle surprisingly fails to ask him "how the hell did you get my home address you psycho?” and instead accepts his offer of a date. Now the hitherto lonely Mirabelle has suddenly found herself with two remarkably different suitors to choose from.

And….that's about it. Mirabelle begins a relationship with Ray while she frets about whether or not he really loves her, and an unlikely plot contrivance sees Jeremy hit the road with a rock band where he grows up a little. There's a distinct lack of incident in Martin's screenplay and while Brokeback Mountain recently provided an exemplary example of adapting a short story for the big screen, Shopgirl's painfully thin narrative fails to sustain the film's 104 minute running time. In a bid to fill time, director Tucker resorts to repetitive shots of the characters looking winsome and soulful which only serves to lend the film a sense of ennui rather than any sort of depth.

Tucker also has an annoying habit of trying to draw parallels between the disparate characters, like the cuts between Jeremy and Ray both watching the same football game on TV (Ray eating sushi, Jeremy eating McDonalds), or the camera panning from the skyline view Ray enjoys in his private jet to the view from Danes' bathroom window. This fussy formalism squeezes the life out of the film and Tucker only makes things worse by embellishing his sweeping camera moves with Barrington Pheloung's intrusive musical score, which seems to have been lifted from a different, more epic movie.

Shopgirl never lets us get close to the central characters, it never lets us learn who they are or why they behave the way they do. What does Ray see in Mirabelle? We never truly know, and Martin's surprisingly stiff and awkward display never looks like telling us. Martin has burdened the film with a voiceover through which an all-seeing narrator tries to explain the character's innermost thoughts - but whose bright idea was it to let Martin provide this service too? When this supposedly independent and omniscient storyteller is played by the same person as one of the characters it completely confuses the issue and seems to weight our sympathies with Ray when Mirabelle should be the real centre of the story.

Thankfully, Claire Danes is never in danger of letting herself be sidelined and her performance is the one aspect of Shopgirl which genuinely works. Danes has never been better than she is here and she grabs a rare opportunity to carry a picture with both hands, delivering a hugely sympathetic and believable display. She looks beautiful in a series of stylish dresses and her aching vulnerability briefly gives the film some heart, but the film never manages to complement Danes' effort with any genuine feeling of its own.

Shopgirl is not a very funny film, and not particularly romantic either, but what really destroys it is how unpleasant the whole film feels. With a 35 year age difference between the pair Martin's central relationship is already on unstable ground, and Ray's predatory behaviour often appears uncomfortably lecherous. When Ray pays off Mirabelle's student loan without her knowledge or consent she doesn't register any sense of surprise or caution, but instead reacts as if this is simply the most romantic gesture she could imagine. When Ray later breaks her heart she sulks at home until he calls, and then she hops right on a plane to be with him. Whose fantasy world is this film occurring in?

By the time Danes found herself laying naked on a bed while Martin caressed her body (an indescribably excruciating scene), I realised the truth of Shopgirl. This is nothing more than Steve Martin's middle-aged fantasy being played out on screen; and it ain't pretty.

Shopgirl is a utterly terrible film; a hollow, distant and faintly sleazy production which never engages our emotions and fails to live up to its leading actress. I spent the whole film wishing I could pull Danes out of this mess and place her in a film which really deserves her, but she's stuck there between Martin's wooden smugness and Schwartzman's tiresome clowning. By the time Mirabelle finally chose her man I couldn't help feeling that she would be better off without either of them.

Shopgirl is not the return to form for Martin which I hoped it would be, in fact it only offers more evidence of how far this once vital comedian's star has slipped. Martin seems to be running on empty these days - bereft of ideas, bereft of heart - and the saddest sight of all in this film is the onetime Wild and Crazy Guy appearing as lifeless and emotionless as a shop mannequin.