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SHOPGIRL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman
Director:  Anand Tucker
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Buena Vista
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  April 25, 2006

“Why don’t you love me?”

Film **

It occurred to me while watching Shopgirl why soap operas are so popular.  Yes, they’re generally over-the-top, cheesily written and marginally acted, but they’re also as far from real life as you can get for most people.  And distance from reality equates to entertainment.

Shopgirl is a movie that wallows in reality.  The way the characters talk, think, act and feel…all real.  Coming from the mind of Steve Martin, who adapted the screenplay from his own novella, Shopgirl is a very insightful movie.  In fact, all it really has to offer is insights.  The story doesn’t progress from one dynamic moment to the next, but from insight to insight.

Claire Danes, she of the angular girl-next-door kind of beauty, is the highest apex of the movie.  She plays Mirabelle, an aspiring artist who left Vermont for Los Angeles and now works as a shopgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue while hoping for her fortunes to turn.  She’s the embodiment of how, in a city like L.A. with millions of people, it’s easy to feel overlooked and lonely as you go about your life.

Two men enter the picture.  The first is Jeremy (Schwartzman), a fellow artist with no social skills and needing a neon sign over his brain that reads “permanent vacancy”.  He makes his move on Mirabelle in a laundromat of all places, gets a date with her, does everything as wrong as can be done, yet she awkwardly consents. 

The second is Ray (Martin himself), an older, more successful man who buys a pair of gloves from her at the store and they end up at her front door with a note asking for a date.  Ray likes Mirabelle, but makes it clear he’s not looking for Miss Right, but Miss Right Now.  Whilst the clueless Jeremy ends up on a road trip with a band (did I mention he designs logos for amplifiers?), Ray shows Mirabelle a thing or two about the finer things in life.  And a thing or two about the realities of it as well.

There isn’t a false moment in the movie; that’s a plus.  But the minus is that it feels so much like life that you might see too much of your own pains and problems in the characters…or if not, you might feel like you could have just as easily spent time alone in a restaurant just observing everybody and listening in on their conversations and gotten the same results.  There are naturally humorous moments and naturally sad ones, but as in life, they seem random, and perhaps meaning can only be ascribed to them after the fact.

Steve Martin is a supremely gifted writer.  I think I might have enjoyed reading his short novel better than watching it played out as a feature film.  Movies that have to interject every so often with omniscient third person spoken narrative always feel a little problematic to me.  Which is, I suppose, why many books don’t translate well.  If you cut the words, you cut a lot of the heart, and if you leave them in, they get in the way like rude obstacles.

As mentioned, the real treat of the film is Ms. Danes, who turns in one of her finest performances.  Because of her, we do feel for Mirabelle, even if it seems like we just happened to stumble in to her life haphazardly at this particular moment in time.

I guess art can imitate life.  But for many of us, life is not like the movies.  Maybe the movies should return the compliment.

Video ***1/2

This is a lovely looking transfer from Buena Vista, one that showcases Los Angeles in all its sunlit and streetlit glory.  I noticed one particular dark sequence that showed a bit of grain, but apart from that, it was clean and clear sailing all the way.

Audio **

The 5.1 audio is dialogue-driven, and as such, isn’t too demanding on your system.  The only dynamic range occurs during some bits of music.  Apart from that, the spoken words come through cleanly, which is really all you hope for with a film of this nature.

Features ***

The extras include a commentary with director Anand Tucker (but sadly, no Steve Martin), a pair of deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and some previews.

Summary:

Shopgirl is literal to the point of not being daring enough.  It observes and contemplates but doesn’t engage, and doesn’t take audiences to many conclusions we haven’t already drawn in our own experiences.  Steve Martin said his first impulse was that his novella wouldn’t make a good film.  His instincts are sharp; he should trust them in the future.

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