Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/28/05 00:38:28

"Perhaps the most Canadian film ever made in America"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Because it is a low-key comedy-drama that deals in part with a sort-of romance between an emotionally withdrawn older man and an unfulfilled younger woman at a personal crossroads, there are many who will probably compare “Shopgirl” to “Lost in Translation,” even though the Steve Martin novella that it is based on predates Sofia Coppola’s film by a couple of years. Actually, it is more reminiscent of the works of people like Jane Austen, for whom romance was more a meeting of the minds and hearts than of the genitals. And in the way that it acutely observes how people sometimes make the correct decisions regarding life and love in the belief that they are somehow “settling” for some thing else, it also reminds of the immortal words of another pair of acclaimed British writers: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need.”

Claire Danes stars as Mirabelle Buttersfield, a young woman living a lonely existence as quietly anachronistic as her old-fashioned name suggests–by days, she works behind the counter of the glove department at the Saks in L.A. and at night, she sits alone in her apartment working on her charcoal sketches. Before long, she finds herself the center of attention of two wildly different suitors. The first is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a goofy slacker who ekes out a meager living designing fonts for a speaker manufacturer. Mirabelle is strangely charmed by him when he awkwardly tries to pick her up in a Laundromat but after a couple of fairly disastrous dates (one consists of watching an IMAX theater instead of the movie within and another is sidetracked by a discussion of the efficiency of a Baggie as a birth control device), she finds herself growing more disenchanted. Around this time, Ray Porter (Martin), a wealthy older man, comes into the store and purchases a pair of gloves from her–later on, she finds them outside her apartment with a dinner invitation.

Ray and Mirabelle become a couple, after a fashion, though their relationship seems to be based less on grand passion and more along the fact that they are comfortable around each other. What becomes obvious to us, if not to them, is that each one is deluding themselves to a degree about the seriousness of the relationship. Mirabelle gradually becomes more and more convinced that this relationship is the real thing and begins idly speculating about the future. Ray, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who finds it easier to offer her expensive baubles than his heart and sees the relationship as just a lark for both of them with no specific future–he loses this illusion when he confesses a single meaningless encounter with another woman and is shocked by Mirabelle’s devastated response. Meanwhile, Jeremy, who has decided to improve himself in an effort to regain Mirabelle, goes off on a journey with a rock band and returns to her with a new wardrobe and a new attitude towards life to go with it.

The original novella by Martin was a lovely bit of small-scale writing but it wasn’t the type of work that lends itself easily to a film adaptation–instead of a propulsive narrative, much of the story deals with the psychological and emotional actions and motivations of the characters. In adapting his work into a screenplay, Martin has transformed a mostly internal story into a conventional narrative with mixed results. He gets the feeling of the characters and their surroundings down pat–the expensively sterile home of Ray and the funkier dwellings of Mirabelle and Jeremy–and a lot of the dialogue between the three characters rings true in a way that sounds perfectly worded without coming off as too arch or literary. The problem is that the characters of Ray and Mirabelle are so restrained and reticent that they come pretty close to feeling bloodless at certain points. (This may well be the most Canadian-feeling movie ever produced in America.) As a result, when we get to the stuff featuring the comparatively manic Jeremy, the shift in tone is occasionally jarring and comes off at times like low comedy relief than a natural story progression. (One subplot, in which a gold-digging co-worker or Mirabelle’s sets her sights on Ray but winds up with Jeremy instead, comes off like the coarsest of sitcoms and could have easily be deleted, or at least shortened, without losing much of anything.)

Where “Shopgirl” succeeds, enough so to warrant a recommendation, is in the performances. For Martin, his smooth and skillful work as Ray is a reminder that he can be, when duly inspired, one of the more intriguing actors around–a fact that has gotten lost in recent years as he has wasted his talents on the likes of “Bringing Down the House” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” As for Schwartzman, he is essentially doing a riff on his beloved Max Fischer character from “Rushmore,” but he does lend the character an oddball charm that allows you to see why Mirabelle would find him intriguing despite his obvious weirdness.

The best performance, however, comes from Claire Danes, the wonderful young actress who made such a splash early on with the short-lived TV show “My So-Called Life” and who has never quite found the movie role that has allowed her to live up to her early promise (at one point, she even found herself blowing things up amidst the carnage of “Terminator 3"). Her performance as Mirabelle is her best big-screen work to date–she is sweet, charming and sexy in a low-key manner while still letting her vulnerabilities comes through in quietly unassuming ways that are all the more affecting for the way that they sneak up on you when you least expect them.

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