Directed by Anand Tucker. Starring Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Sam Bottoms, Frances Conroy. (2005, R, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 4, 2005
Shopgirl is a rare Hollywood offering: a romantic story without the romance, a love story without the hearts and flowers. Well, there are a few flowers, but those that do sprout represent the kinds of things that money can buy rather than the whimsical he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not sort. Martin crafted a screenplay from his spare novella about Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes), a lonely saleswoman at the rarely visited evening-glove counter at the Los Angeles Saks Fifth Avenue. Mirabelle has moved to L.A. from Vermont after college in a frail attempt to start her life. She’s something of an orchid herself, with a beguiling, though partially hidden, allure yet a bit passive and fragile to the touch. As the story opens, after a lovely tracking shot through Saks (courtesy of DP Peter Suschitzky) that leads to Mirabelle but gives the illusion the camera could have zeroed in on one of any number of anonymous L.A. lonely hearts, her scent is picked up by two separate suitors, two men who couldn’t be any more different than the cars they rode in on. Jeremy (Schwartzman) is a scruffy, unshaven self-proclaimed font designer, who attempts to pick her up at the Laundromat and whose impoverished rock & roll lifestyle lacks finesse and social grace. Ray Porter (Martin, who also provides the story’s voiceover as an omniscient narrator) is a dot-com millionaire who travels between Seattle and Los Angeles on his private jet and woos Mirabelle with expensive gifts and his luxurious lifestyle. Ray believes he’s being honest with Mirabelle when he discusses his need for their relationship to have no long-term commitment and she agrees. But the movie deftly shows how the same words are interpreted differently by each of them. As Jeremy goes out of town on an extended rock & roll adventure, the relationship between Ray and Mirabelle heats up. As the titular shopgirl, Claire Danes is perfection, undergoing a range of emotions that we discern only from her face and demeanor rather than any lines of dialogue or plot development. Without Danes as Mirabelle, Shopgirl would probably be another creature entirely. It’s no small accomplishment that the romance between a 60-year-old and a twentysomething does not come off as icky and inappropriate. Schwartzman provides most of the comic relief, and really comes into his own here as a comic actor. Martin, despite doing one of the best versions of his familiar suave sophisticate, still tracks in a degree of smarm, perhaps most evident in the narrating voiceover, which is unnecessary and unfortunately lends the story a slight whiff of condescension (a tone that’s ushered in by the story’s very title). Anand Tucker brings a fluid touch to the film, although the heavy piano and cello score by Barrington Pheloung often seems to echo Tucker’s previous film, Hilary and Jackie. Ultimately, Shopgirl stands out as an elegant work, one that provides a welcome look at love, romance, and heartbreak without the encumbrances of the usual Hollywood folderol. Yet, there still seems something evasive about the film’s elegant bearing, as if when scratched deeply it would appear as vacant as all the other Hollywood love stories. And without the luminous Danes in the title role, Shopgirl would have the flair of an ordinary sales clerk.