Judge Kerry Birmingham was once involved in a May-December romance, but the wedding was called off by the bride's great-grandchildren.
Relationships don't always fit like a glove.
Steve Martin's career can be divided into two halves: Good Steve Martin—he of The Jerk, and L.A. Story, and the legendary stand-up act—and Evil Steve Martin, the star of multiple Cheaper by the Dozen movies, The Out-of-Towners, and Sgt. Bilko. As if to atone for his sins in the name of career longevity and demographic whoring, Martin has built almost a second career for himself as an arch, witty writer for arch, witty publications like The New Yorker and a reputation as a wry iconoclast. This Steve Martin, the Good and (I like to believe) Real Steve Martin, is the one who wrote Shopgirl, the novella on which this movie is based. "Novella" is, of course, a literary term meaning "The author couldn't make it long enough to be a real novel." Martin adapts his own work for the screen, with directing chores handed off to Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie). In a story not particularly well suited to adaptation as a feature film, the dilemma becomes determining which Martin has shown up for the proceedings: Good Steve or Bad Steve. Considering the subject matter—a delicate, awkward romance, and the loss of same—you hope for the former.
Facts of the Case
A lonely East Coast girl, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), moves to Los Angeles, where she lives in a lonely apartment and works at the lonely glove counter in an upscale department store. Mirabelle's life suddenly becomes more complicated when she finds herself courted by two men: crass, clueless Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and older, wealthy Ray (Martin). Through the ups and downs of her relationships with these men, Mirabelle tries to figure out which path, and which man, will make her happy.
As the end credits came to a close on my first viewing of Shopgirl, in that space where I try to formulate an opinion on a movie before watching the supplemental material (where propaganda is king and honest filmmaking assessments are rare), I wasn't sure how I felt about this movie. My initial critical impulses were that it was too shapeless, too meandering, too determinedly languid. I had problems with the basic premise behind the Jeremy character—a hipster asshole who we're expected to believe is a nice guy simply because he tells us so; also, casting Steve Martin seemed like an unnecessary bit of self-indulgence.
But those problems aside, elements from the movie gnawed at me. Not the usual things that bother you when attempting to view a movie with a discerning eye (which typically has the side effect of draining all enjoyment from the process), like performances, shot choices, and structural cohesion, but the emotional elements that filmmakers always hope are the ones that the viewer notices. Setting aside the problematic elements, I found that the emotional content of the film, its nonjudgmental look at the glory and awkwardness of love, spoke to me. It is, yes, largely plotless, and certainly doesn't adhere to any traditional three-act structure. Tableaux between lovers play out in their gawky inelegance. Romantic gestures are countered almost instantly with stark stupidity, gross inconsideration, or insipid reality. Shopgirl is a romance, but a romance with all the uncomfortable bits left in that we typically sift out of our memories of our loved ones. There is no gloss and no hyperbole, no one stopping their lover from getting on a plane or trying to win the other back with an elaborate plan. Instead, there are unreturned phone calls, tentative sex, and the pauses and silences and misunderstandings that litter the landscape of any honest romance.
Thinking of it in these terms, the movie began to make more sense to me. It's an unRomantic romance. Framed with a semi-omniscient narration by Martin's Ray, it begins and ends with the tender insight afforded to those afflicted with hindsight. It's clear Martin was treading in personal waters here, exposing his own (considerable) life lessons and maybe expressing a twinge of fond regret for the girls that got away and the ones he drove away. There's something stark and honest about the spare narration, and it not only taps into the underlying motives of the characters (not solely Ray), but bookends the proceedings with both joy and tragedy…like most relationships.
The film received mixed reviews on its theatrical release, and it's easy to understand why. Appreciation of Shopgirl will rely heavily on one's attunement to the kinds of relationships being portrayed. Without seeing at least a bit of yourself in Ray, or Jeremy, or Mirabelle, there's likely not much the movie will be able to do to persuade you it's not just an exercise in vain, pretentious posturing. Without some sort of relevant personal bittersweetness, Shopgirl can quickly tax the viewer's patience with its self-conscious portrayal of Los Angeles and three characters obsessed with the melodrama of their own lives in which essentially nothing happens. It's a fair criticism, and undeniably an accurate reading of the surface elements, but the point of the movie isn't in its barely perceptible narrative arc. The tenor of Martin's script is longing tinged with the absurdity of modern love. Danes's performance as Mirabelle has been justly lauded; by far the best performance of her adult life, and her most likeable since My So-Called Life. Mirabelle could have easily been portrayed as a flaky bumpkin (she grew up in an idyllic Vermont suburb) or merely receded into the background while Ray and Jeremy, flashier roles by flashier performers, dominated the story, but Danes plays Mirabelle with the right combination of restraint and warmth to prevent her from being the romantic pawn. Schwartzman, always a good idea to cast in your movie, is fine as Jeremy, acting like a grade-A jerk to Mirabelle before disappearing for half the film on an inadvertent quest for self-discovery that mostly involves yoga tapes and self-help books. Jeremy, as a character, remains the least convincing. By the time he returns to L.A., in sunglasses and a borrowed suit, we're meant to accept his progression as a positive and sincere evolution into the kind of man Mirabelle would want and deserve. It's never altogether too believable, however; as Mirabelle is put in the position to choose her own fate, it doesn't feel as though Jeremy has earned his potentially redemptive shot at Mirabelle's favor.
Other than the false notes of Jeremy's transformation, Martin's script is surprisingly tight. Many will balk at the talking heads and non-sequiturs, but in retrospect there's the feeling of a precision of language that belies that understandable preconception that the story has been stretched for feature length. Having never read the novella, I can't attest to its faithfulness, but as a film its deliberate pace and occasionally sour, occasionally glowing humor points more to the work of Good Steve than Bad Steve.
Martin is so omnipresent, it's easy to overlook the contribution of Anand Tucker. Tucker gives the impression of a craftsman (as anyone who's seen Hilary and Jackie can attest), and Shopgirl is no different. Whether or not what he's crafted is palatable to a wide audience is up for debate, though it's clear that, if nothing else, Tucker wasn't the cipher one might expect from a production so saturated with…well, Steve Martin. Tucker might one day direct a truly great movie; this, whatever my qualified praise, isn't it, though it's a memorable and affecting attempt.
Features include a pair of listless deleted scenes, part of the large club of Scenes Cut With Good Reason, though one appears in altered form in the film. Tucker provides a brisk, enthusiastic commentary of the kind you wish more directors would do, laying out both technical hurdles and the thought processes behind the choices he made in directing the film. His explanations of everything from the color palette to editing to fit his notion of a five-act opera more than adequately underline his passion for the material. The making-of featurette is slightly weightier than one would expect, giving lots of background from conception through filming in a way that's flattering to the production without smacking of studio fluff; even Tucker's articulate vigor is just as present as in the commentary. Sound and picture quality are nominal, with occasional edge enhancement.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is billed as a comedy, and it is funny, in the Sahara-dry way that Good Steve Martin tends to excel in, but its acceptance and embrace of the tragic and the sublime are what accelerate it beyond the twee art house trappings of its exterior.
Not guilty. Any and all Steve Martins are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Commentary with Director Anand Tucker
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