Forget the bad reviews—especially the outraged ones that are aghast that a movie with a credit-crazed heroine would dare to show its face at this unfortunate time in history. P.J. Hogan’s Confessions of a Shopaholic is a triumph of style over lack of substance—one made human by Isla Fisher and made romantic by the pairing of Fisher and Hugh Dancy.
The uproar over the subject matter seems remarkably strange—as if no one should address the massive credit debt facing America in any but the most sepulchral tones. Have none of these appalled critics ever taken a look at Depression-era movies? Oh, sure, the era boasted some heavy dramas on the topic, but it was also filled with gloriously fantasticated films that were hardly lacking in conspicuous consumption, for the express purpose of helping viewers get away from grim reality for a couple hours. As a steady diet, that might be wanting, but it’s hardly an ignoble accomplishment on occasion. In the case of Confessions of a Shopaholic, the same more or less holds true—and if Fisher’s Rebecca Bloomwood allows us both to see a little of ourselves in her acquisitive manner while laughing at our own foibles and even to suggest that our plight mayn’t be the end of the world, I’m hard-pressed to fault it.
The connection to Depression-era comedy doesn’t end with the film’s tone. Isla Fisher is the kind of comedienne we haven’t seen since the days of the screwball comedy. Some critics have likened her to Lucille Ball—by which they mean the Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy. But she reminds me of earlier comedic actresses, like Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and even the sainted Carole Lombard. What separates them—and Fisher—from Ball is their ability to play broad physical comedy while remaining sexy and appealingly vulnerable. That is not something I’d say about Ball.
Here Fisher plays a magazine writer (at a failing gardening magazine) who is drowning in credit-card debt and can’t quite get a handle on just how she went from being a “most valued customer” to being on the receiving end of threats and collection agencies. Things change for her when she drunkenly sends a story about shoes meant for a fashion magazine to Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy), editor of a financial magazine with whom she’d had a disastrous interview earlier in the day. Being that this is a romantic comedy, he mistakes the piece for an allegory about finance and promptly hires her to write about money in terms that the average person can understand. While Rebecca really wants to write for a fashion magazine, she sees this job as a stepping-stone—especially since the targeted fashion magazine is part of the same publishing empire.
There are no great surprises about what’s going to happen over the course of the film. The surprises come in the embellishments—ranging from talking department-store dummies, to a character who offers asides on Rebecca’s feelings, to a street woman who sings an appropriately PG-ified version of Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breaking My Heart,” to all manner of inspired physical comedy from Fisher. Certain moments—Fisher trying to retrieve a letter from a mail cart, for example—are the sort of comedy we almost never see these days. A dance scene between Fisher and Dancy is at once hilarious and astonishing in its gracefulness.
The tone is soufflé-light throughout, with several standout comedy scenes and just a touch of depth to make it believable even at its wildest, but it’s the tone that carries Shopaholic through all the requirements of the form. The film may dutifully make its way through every romantic-comedy trope there is, but it never loses its sense of identity thanks to Hogan’s handling of it all. Yes, you expect the gloomy penultimate misunderstanding reel and you get it, but do you really expect it to be backed by Macy Gray singing Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” (I didn’t know anyone even remembered his Pussycats album!)? There are other surprises of style and embellishment, but I won’t spoil the surprises by cataloging them. See them for yourself. It’s the kind of unprepossessing, but utterly disarming little movie that just makes you feel good for a little while. Sometimes that’s more than enough. Rated PG for some mild language and thematic elements.