Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

Having recently watched Steve Martin at the height of his powers in the ludicrous The Man With Two Brains, I have to say that my expectations of Shopgirl were higher. I wanted something subtle, witty and carefully observed. Instead, it suffers from the inability to adapt irony from page to screen. Lines that sound as if they should be funny fall strangely flat. For example, when Mirabelle's (Claire Daines) slutty co-worker Lisa (Bridgette Wilson) offers her advice on how to date rich men, much of which consists of the dispensing and withholding of fellatio, Mirabelle looks at her almost uncomprehendingly and says, "I just couldn't do all that...I'm from Vermont." Rather than functioning as a subtle social observation, Daines utters this line as if it was completely true.

Shopgirl concerns the fate of miserable Mirabelle, who works listlessly in the glove department of Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. After a gruelling day of standing staring into space, she returns to her poky apartment to make drawings, which she occasionally sells through an art dealer. One night, she meets graphic artist Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) at the laundromat, who boldly asks for her phone number. After what can only be described as one of the most lacklustre dates in cinematic history, she turns him down.

After several intensely lonely weeks, Mirabelle is driven to call Jeremy, who promptly shows up for sex bearing chips. They make love awkwardly. Mirabelle is then courted by the wealthy Ray (Martin), who takes her to dinner in Beverly Hills. When he invites her to his house, they make love. They begin seeing each other when Ray is in town, he believing that he has been clear with her about the fact that the relationship has no future for him, while Mirabelle gushes to her girlfriends about how wonderful, generous and kind he is.

Jeremy goes on the road with the band Hot Tears for six months and listens to a lot of self-help tapes in an effort to better understand women. Mirabelle and Ray grow closer. He gives her several exquisite dresses and eventually even pays off her student loan. When he lets slip that he is thinking of buying a large New York apartment, "in case I meet someone and have kids," Mirabelle realises her mistake. Not long afterwards, she runs into the reformed Jeremy, who soon becomes her boyfriend. She leaves her job at Saks to become a gallery attendant and eventually has an exhibit of her drawings.

Schwartzman appears much as if he has come directly off the set of Spun, with little alteration to his appearance or, indeed, the type of character he plays, up until the last quarter of the film. Jeremy is sincerely irritating and suffers from the kind of unjustifiable high self-esteem that makes it impossible for him to see how totally skanky he really is. He picks up Mirabelle at the laundromat largely because she is there. At the end of their first date, he announces with hardly a trace of irony, "Well, congratulations on going on a date with Jeremy," which is the kind of line I would have expected of someone in high school.

His largely unexplained transformation takes place at the hands of the lead singer of Hot Tears, while touring the country, all the while listening to a shed load of tapes with titles such as How To Emotionally Connect With And Love Women. When he finally runs into Mirabelle again, he is sporting a white Helmut Lang suit, despite the fact that he has been unemployed for six months, engaged in his "emotional work." He talks (again, sans irony) about "learning to be in the moment", a phrase which ought to be banned. When we see the apartment of the transformed Jeremy, it is spotless and tastefully furnished, denuded of its once ubiquitous take out wrappers and dirty socks.

There is this shot of Mirabelle that makes me profoundly uncomfortable, a shot I have heretoforth dubbed "the artistic sacrificial lamb," where she lies naked on Ray's bed on her stomach, looking shyly over her shoulder at him. Despite the chiaroscuro Caravaggio-esque lighting, there is an unsettling quality to her pose. Ray has been showing her his impressive house, which, we learn, he purchased already decorated. When they finally come to the bedroom, they embrace, until the telephone interrupts them. By the time Ray has returned from switching off the phones, Mirabelle is lying naked on the bed. Considering that she is about to make love to a much older, much wealthier man, her position could not be more passive and because of the film's uneven tone, I'm a little unsure at to whether we aren't meant to see this scene as a symbolic exchange of social capital: youth and beauty for access to money and power.

Throughout the story, Ray buys Mirabelle several dresses, all of which are beautifully suited to her style and figure: a Marc Jacobs floral sheath, a slate grey Armani ball gown, a red printed chiffon sundress, a white duchesse satin halter neck evening gown. But it feels like the clothes and what can only be described as the "make-up porn" of the opening credits - the camera skims lovingly over pots of NARS eye shadow - is only there to entice women viewers. But, as a woman, I didn't feel connected to this film. Mirabelle is just a little too understanding and long suffering for my taste.

Everything that should be funny, or touching, is just sad. Daines looks confused, as if she is trying desperately to play Mirabelle straight, even when it's obvious she finds the situation hilarious, or repellent, such as when Jeremy, as they are about to have sex for the first time, asks her if she has any sandwich bags in lieu of a condom (when I related this anecdote to my boyfriend, he could only shudder).

The funniest bit is when Lisa picks up Jeremy at a gallery opening, mistakenly believing him to be Mirabelle's wealthy benefactor. Lisa's room, done up in hot pink and leopard print and littered with sex toys and edible oils, as if she has fully embraced the Agent Provocateur ethos, should also be a lot funnier than it is. Whereas what you see is a woman who works behind the make-up counter, feigning sexual pleasure because she believes the man is wealthy, while an overconfident Jeremy simply thanks his lucky stars that he has scored such a bombshell.

While it is rather gratifying to see a film in which a male character is seen to change and mature, allowing the female lead to see his good qualities and take another chance at a relationship, it would be nice if it weren't someone so annoying. Also, the idea of the much older lover, who not only showers the younger girl with gifts, including paying off her student loan (!), sits uneasily with me. Perhaps this is because I'm not attracted to older men.

I should add that the ending is uplifting, but totally schmaltzy. The uneven tone of the performances and the humour (or lack thereof) really brings down what could have been an interesting and refreshingly intelligent rom-com.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2006
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Shopgirl packshot
A bored sales assistant gets caught in a love triangle with Steve Martin's wealthy geezer and Jason Schwartzman's geek.
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Read more Shopgirl reviews:

The Exile *****

Director: Anand Tucker

Writer: Steve Martin, based on the novella by Steve Martin

Starring: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson, Sam Bottoms, Frances Conroy, Rebecca Pidgeon

Year: 2005

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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