Steve Martin wrote the screenplay for the 2005 film Shopgirl, based on his short novel of the same title. Martin has written several fine small novels. He’s an intelligent, ironic writer with a canny sense of whimsy that one can associate with his comic stand-up routines. Roxanne (1987) was another fine film scripted by Martin. It is more exuberant and outright comic than this subdued and poignant film.
Martin has appeared in films of wildly varying quality. Recently he starred in the unfortunate and unnecessary Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, and well as in the recent remake The Pink Panther, by all accounts a bad film. Is the problem that good film roles aren’t available for Martin? Or is it his own poor judgment — he did write the screenplay for The Pink Panther.
Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker, is quite good. Martin plays one of three main characters, but the lead character is Mirabelle Buttersfield, a salesgirl in her mid-20s at Saks Fifth Avenue, played by Claire Danes, who underplays her role to just the right extent. The film is about her struggle to connect — she is lonely and reticent. She is waiting for something to happen, and it is just possible for her to imagine that something will not happen at all.
Shopgirl is about Mirabelle's relationships with a young man who specializes in stenciling and with a wealthy and much older man, Ray Porter, played by Martin. While he is basically just out for a romantic relationship and for sex, with no strings attached, she falls in love with him.
There is much one might find to criticize in the film — inconsistencies in character and in plot — but the film seduces you into overlooking those flaws and into falling under the thrall of the movie’s charm and of the characters played by Martin and Danes.
As Ray Porter, Martin plays the older man who picks out Mirabelle to befriend. He invites her to dinner, seemingly out of the blue, charms her with his courtliness, and it does not take long for them to become lovers. Although he is initially a likeable character, his desire to have a relationship with no future — a desire he does not effectively communicate to Mirabelle — and his inability to read her (or himself) emotionally gradually makes him less sympathetic. He is nice enough to her, but the more deeply she falls for him, the more he backs off. In many ways, she is little more than his mistress, though she never seems to think of herself in that way, and one can certainly argue that Mirabelle doesn’t think carefully about the nature of the relationship and some of the “no commitments” comments Ray makes to her. Some of the inconsistencies in characterization center on his character — at one moment he seems genuinely in love with Mirabelle and at another moment is cold and unresponsive.
Part of the problem lies in the age difference between the two characters. Mirabelle is young and looking for companionship, for someone to connect to in a lasting way. Ray is thirty years older, and has been through at least one marriage (we see his ex-wife, briefly). He is not comfortable with intimacy, and relationships work best for him if he can periodically withdraw, as he does when he goes to Seattle, where he has a home and where his ex-wife lives. One might say that Mirabelle and Ray simply meet at the wrong time.
Jason Schwartzman plays Mirabelle’s other love interest, Jeremy Kraft. He is a gangly, silly, awkward figure and at points he seems more a caricature than a real human being. But he grows and changes more than any other character in the film, and though at the end he remains goofy, he has matured and offers an alternative for Mirabelle.
Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) offered a similar treatment of the patterns of love and romance, but Martin does not imitate Allen in his screenplay and instead goes his own way. I actually prefer this film to Annie Hall, which has not aged well, and whose immature one-liners have become over the years more and more painful. This film actually has more in common with Allen’s film Manhattan (1979), his real masterpiece from the 1970s.
Cinematography is noteworthy in Shopgirl. It transforms the landscape of Los Angeles into a dynamic setting against which the characters play out their lives. There are a number of distant shots of the unremarkable and nondescript apartment in which Mirabelle lives. The perspective emphasizes that she is one small part of a much larger scene, that she is a small speck in the urban sprawl. Much of the film takes place at night, and the lights of the city are always flickering in the distance. Los Angeles comes across as beautiful, huge, and impersonal.
The music is a strange combination of neo-romantic and minimalist. It works well and the film is edited in such a way that cinematography and music fuse to create the overall ambiance of the film and the internal rhythms of a number of scenes.
Many of the virtues of the film can be attributed to director Anand Tucker, whose previous major work was Hillary and Jackie (1998).
Shopgirl is a quiet film and perhaps a small one, but it is moving and tender. It has a deep understanding and empathy for human character, especially for Mirabelle Buttersfield. This fine film makes up for any number of the clunkers in which Steve Martin has recently appeared.