Reviewed by: The Exile

In the rhapsodic opening shot of Shopgirl, the camera glides through Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, skimming makeup displays and glass countertops before coming to a halt on Claire Danes' dreamy face. As Barrington Pheloung's retro-romantic score rises and falls, British director Anand Tucker (Hilary And Jackie) holds the camera steady and the moment - the beautiful, slightly sad woman, the opulent surroundings - is pure Douglas Sirk. From that point on, the only reasonable thing to do is surrender.

Lush, swooning and elementally bittersweet, Shopgirl is exactly the kind of film Sirk might have made, an urban fairytale that rekindles hope in Hollywood's ability to handle love without the bumper of irony. The story, based on a 2001 novella by Steve Martin, who also produced, scripted and co-stars, is lean to the point of emaciation. But Tucker finds his material inside his characters, mirroring their emotions, as Sirk did, in their clothing and surroundings.

Danes is Mirabelle Buttersfield, a chemically depressed salesgirl, whose glove counter seems to float in the middle of a vast sales floor, isolated and with few customers. A Vermont transplant, she returns each evening to a small, featureless apartment and a placid cat. Sometimes she works on charcoal drawings, always of herself. Mirabelle's world could not possibly be more solitary.

Then she meets two, very different men. In the laundromat, a hyperactive font designer, named Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), asks, "Do you need change?" and Mirabelle's face registers the dual meaning. Though he is the kind of happily unsocialised guy who brings fries to a date and borrows a condom from the neighbour, Mirabelle is amused by his weirdness. But Jeremy fades to an annoying subplot when wealthy, elegant and considerably older logician Ray Porter (Martin) appears and begins a seduction campaign, heavy on gifts and expensive dinners. Soon, Mirabelle is in love, Ray is in denial and Shopgirl is in heaven.

The movies are filled with sad December men grasping for tight May flesh (Woody Allen has built a career on it and Bill Murray recently discovered the attractions in Lost In Translation) and the result is as likely to be creepy as heartwarming. But Martin, playing Ray with quiet, recessive diffidence, gives the character a lonely sweetness that shaves the edge off the ick factor - it's no coincidence his best early work was as The Lonely Guy.

Ray may have intimacy issues but he's not a heartless playboy and Martin's intelligence adds heft to a role that's dangerously thin. His love scenes with Danes, tastefully shot and delicately played (the passion in this movie is, like everything else, refined and idealised), are always more about longing than lust.

Shopgirl is Danes' film all the way. She hasn't been this heartbreakingly vulnerable since My So-Called Life. Tucker dresses her in vintage floral frocks - no pants, ever - that enhance her natural air of nostalgia, and director of photography Peter J Suschitzky shoots LA with wonderful attention to the superficial and alienating - the vistas that would chase a country girl indoors. Even the movie's mis-steps - Martin's occasional, precious voiceovers and a jarringly unnecessary subplot, featuring a greedy colleague of Mirabelle's - inflict only minimal damage to the film's fragile tone.

Modest and beguiling, Shopgirl is a rarity in modern movies: a love story that dares to play it straight.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2005
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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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Sarah Artt **1/2

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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