At the suggestion of a very special friend, I decided to check out Shopgirl. I’d seen the poster art previously, but never really considered checking this one out. In short, Shopgirl might have been better received (at least by me) had the casting choices been more carefully considered. I had some baggage to bring to the table, and that ultimately affected my enjoyment. (But there are more than a few issues with this one.)
Shopgirl stars Claire Danes as Mirabelle – a twentysomething glove sales attendant at a Saks Fifth Avenue in California with a somewhat uncertain future. Also starring as her love interests are Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin. Claire, as always, is quite dashing. Aside from her physical attractiveness, she projects a personality that is profound; she seems like the type of girl who you could really get to know on an intellectual level. I didn’t have a problem with ‘Mirabelle’ as much as I did her choices (but more on that in a bit).
Where I did have a problem was with the other casting decisions. Steve Martin has been trying his hand at this ‘serious actor’ thing for quite some time (L.A. Story, Grand Canyon) it just never worked for me. When I see that face, I just want jokes. Be they flatly delivered exaggerations or blunt SNL-style humor, that’s what I find myself looking for. That isn’t to say that I’m so unforgiving that I won’t allow an actor to range outside of the roles I’m accustomed to seeing him in. I think Jim Carrey has done a phenomenal job in his non-comedic roles (and I’d like to see him in many more serious films). But Steve Martin as the straight man just doesn’t do it for me. He didn’t in other films and he definitely doesn’t here either.
There are few actors that irk me the way that Jason Schwartzman does. It’s a mean thing to say – I know – but he’s probably the most annoying actor this side of Tom Green. I just don’t get him. I’ve been trying to find it in my heart to forgive him since I Heart Huckabees, but this just adds kerosene to an already raging fire. Clearly he’s got ‘acting chops’, but every role I’ve watched him in just frustrates me more and more. Why? Well, for starters, he’s needlessly complicated. He’s every annoying kid in my childhood who redefines the notion that ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’. There are short nerdy actors that could have worked in this role (which is KEY to the viewer’s appreciation of the film). And regardless of my prejudices, Jason Schwartzman just doesn’t work in this role. Period. (Zack Braff – where are you when we need you!?!?!)
Shopgirl is the brainchild of Steve Martin – it’s based on a his novella of the same name. As the film progresses, Mirabelle appears to be at a ‘fork in the road’, of sorts, in her life. She has student loans due that are beyond her finances. She seems to want to give love but initially can’t find the right one to receive it. Where I lose respect for Mirabelle is that she decides to focus her romantic attention upon two choices: the mumps and the measles. Jason Schwartzman is ‘Jeremy’ – a twentysomething eccentric and annoying guy she meets in a laundromat. The contrast between he and Mirabelle when the two are onscreen is like night and day and one can’t help but ask the question, “what the hell does she see in this idiot?” On the ‘measles’ side of the equation, you have Steve Martin’s character ‘Ray Porter’. (By the way, Steve: Just because you write the screenplay doesn’t mean you have to act in it. Just a little tip – this one’s free.) For ‘Ray’, Steve Martin decides to put on his somewhat charming but ultimately lifeless persona. He is a walking corpse in this film. I can’t remember a single scene where he laughed or brought laughter to ‘Mirabelle’, other than the times when he was trying to buy her friendship. (There’s literally a scene where he asks Danes, “Was I boring?” and she replies ‘Yes.’)
While I want to blame Steve Martin’s lifeless acting or Jason Schwartzman’s random ridiculous utterances, as I took some time this afternoon to ponder on it a bit, it’s Mirabelle that I ultimately have the problem with. You see, while Mirabelle is a beautiful and intelligent girl with a an uncertain future ahead of her, the choices that she makes cause me to call into question just how ‘bright’ that future might be. Without ruining the film for those who haven’t seen it, if you decide to watch the film, keep Mirabelle’s judgement in mind while viewing and you may see why she frustrates me. I’d like to think that a woman with so much to offer, when faced with choosing between two bad options would ultimately choose neither man and instead choose to focus on herself. And while it’s alright to experiment and to ‘kiss a few frogs’ before settling on a prince, she seems to have a knack for choosing frogs. Really…bad….frogs. Frogs with issues. (You get the point.)
This movie deals with the whole “younger girl meets older man” dynamic. It’s interesting to contrast this movie with one of my all-time favorite films, Lost in Translation. This film forced me to consider what worked about Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen but didn’t work between Claire Danes and Steve Martin. (Hmm…what is it about these SNL-alums and their younger women??). For one, Bill Murray’s intentions seem much more sincere. He’s a rich guy too, but he’s a guy who likes to live and have fun and ‘ham it up’ a bit at his own expense for the sake of attracting the attention of lady. Steve Martin, as mentioned, is completely devoid of life. Bill Murray seems as if he’s awkwardly trying his hand at different ways to get Scarlett’s attention. Steve Martin is simply buying his way in. Bill Murray’s conscience keeps him from taking advantage of the sexual situation that was put before him, ultimately realizing that despite the fact that he and Scarlett likely wouldn’t see each other after Japan, that sex would cheapen their deeper-than-sexual experience. Steve Martin has sex at the first chance he can with Mirabelle (and on the very next morning says he doesn’t want anything serious. And Mirabelle doesn’t seem to have any issues with it!)
By holding this film up to the mirror that is Lost in Translation, it also magnifies and even bigger problem. In Lost, I believed that the attraction between the two characters is genuine. The place where the “young girl, old dude” situation either works or doesn’t is with the women. For this thing to work the viewer truly has to believe that the younger character (particularly when money is added to the equation) actually digs this old guy for his maturity or his ‘fatherly quality’ or whatever other non-financial qualities he brings to the table. Bill Murray has personality in spades. Steve Martin (in this role) has none. He’s just a strange and mysterious old dude who remains mysterious even until his very last scene in the film. It’s not really fair to compare the two movies. They have very different aims. But I just thought it was interesting to take a look at why one age gap relationship in a film works so well on so many levels and another one completely flopped for me.
While I can’t say that Shopgirl is a typical Hollywood film, I can’t necessarily find any redeeming qualities in it either. It’s not funny. There is a point at the film’s end where it could have been a much more satisfying ending had the ‘Jeremy’ role been cast better. But ultimately this feels like a movie about ‘playing it safe’ or ‘settling for less’: two themes that no romantic comedy should have in their vocabulary.