I doubt it’s necessary by this time to point out that this isn’t your average Steve Martin movie. It isn’t aimed at the same audience who can’t wait for Cheaper by the Dozen 2. It’s not even aimed at the five or six people who actually went to see the agreeably quirky Novocaine. And it has nothing to do with a “wild and crazy guy” or an arrow through the head. If there’s an arrow involved here, it’s straight through the heart.
Truthfully, Shopgirl isn’t really a Steve Martin picture; it’s a Claire Danes movie that co-stars Martin and Jason Schwartzman. It’s also a very odd film, reminding me more of Paul Haggis’ Crash than of a romantic comedy.
I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing, because part of what reminds me of Crash — besides the basic theme of the seeming impossibility of genuine human interaction in L.A. — is the basic sense of something unreal about the way the characters speak. Where Crash required the viewer to accept a preponderance of coincidences in order to work, Shopgirl insists that you believe in characters who often engage in what can only be called “literary speak.”
Much of what is said in Shopgirl is so much in this vein that it’s hard not to follow the lines with thoughts like, “Mirabelle said cautiously.” The effect is aggravated by Steve Martin’s occasional narration — a thoughtful, yet probably inessential, hangover from Martin’s novella, and one that suggests he doesn’t quite trust the film itself to get his points across. But after a while, it works — in part because all three of the main characters speak in the same manner, causing the tone to become the norm for the world of the film. Moreover, let’s be honest: It’s not a bad thing to hear well-spoken people on the screen every so often.
Though presented as a romantic comedy — Shopgirl even engineers two scenes in which Mirabelle (Danes) gets to “meet cute” with guys (Schwartzman and Martin) — the film is never overtly comedic, despite a high quotient of playful scenes and an undercurrent of wry humor. It starts off as a more normal film with struggling artist and Saks salesgirl Mirabelle bumping into the shabby but likable Jeremy (Schwartzman) at a laundrette. She likes him — when he tells her, “I’m an OK guy, by the way,” she and the viewer know it’s true — but she isn’t exactly drawn to him. That’s especially true after their first “date,” where Jeremy does everything with the elan of an emotionally stunted 14-year-old. However, Mirabelle drifts into a kind of relationship with him after she listens to a self-help guru expound on the need for a woman to be held.
Into this situation comes wealthy Ray Porter (Martin), who meets Mirabelle at Saks, buys a pair of gloves from her and then sends them to her with an invitation to dinner. Despite the age difference, Ray is everything Mirabelle could want — in other words, everything Jeremy isn’t. The problem is that Ray wants a relationship that isn’t a relationship — something predetermined as finite. While he’s upfront about this, Mirabelle builds what they have into something more, which the film details with brilliant economy in a few bits of her talking about him to her co-workers.
Shopgirl then follows their nonrelationship with occasional time-outs to follow Jeremy “growing up” — significantly, thanks to self-help CDs — while on the road as a hanger-on with a rock band. What happens is not entirely predictable, largely because the film eschews any easy answers, and it arrives at an inevitable conclusion for reasons other than might be suspected. Finally, this is a very modern romance — the sort you’d expect from people whose world-view is cobbled from self-help manuals — and about as far from romantic comedy as it’s possible to get. It really is, as Mirabelle says at one point, a choice between hurting now or hurting later, and while the film’s conclusion isn’t exactly sad, it’s at best bittersweet.
I wish I could say it all works, but the structure is sometimes unbelievably clunky. Once Martin appears on the scene, Schwartzman’s character is almost completely forgotten for more than 20 minutes and then the cutaways to his self-(help)-awakening often feel like an intrusive necessity. But the movie’s flaws are made worthwhile by the things it gets right — not to mention the fact that Shopgirl is one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory. (If cinematographer Peter Suschitzkty doesn’t snag an Oscar for this, there’s no justice.) Rated R for some sexual content and brief language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke