Friday, October 21, 2005

More on Shopgirl, or Lunch at Saks

(Anand Tucker, USA, rated R, 104 mins)

I was at the same screening of Shopgirl as my colleague. Initially, I was just going to leave a comment stating that I felt the same way about it. Then I realized that there were a few things I wanted to add--even if my conclusion is pretty much the same.

First of all, Claire Danes was miscast. She does a good job, but seems too sturdy for the role of Mirabelle as suggested by the script. And I'm not using "sturdy" as a pseudonym for "heavy"--Danes has never looked thinner.

I was reminded of Jessica Lange in HBO's 1995 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (and I felt the same way about Lange in the 2000 West End revival of Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night). While she gives a fine performance, she looks far too healthy for the role of the fragile Blanche DuBois, unlike Vivien Leigh in the Elia Kazan classic, who looks as if she's been kicked around a little by life--much like the actress who played her. 

Then again, Shopgirl seeks to recreate the charm of 1961's Breakfast at Tiffanys, so I may have been projecting the dainty image of Audrey Hepburn onto Danes, a different physical type. After all, Mirabelle comes from a small town, has a shabby chic-meets-couture style of dressing, and is torn between Steve Martin's wealthy older man and Jason Schwartzman's more age-appropriate working class model. And speaking of her Vermont hometown, could Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) and Sam Bottoms (That's My Bush!), as her silent parents, have been more wasted? I wonder if some of their footage ended up on the cutting room floor.

Then there's Martin, author of the source novella, as Ray. It's hard to see what Mirabelle finds so appealing about this creep--not Martin the actor, but the walking stiff he plays in the film (he gives a similar performance in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner,* but to better effect). Maybe it's a form of anti-vanity on Martin's part, i.e. he didn't want to seem eager to be liked, in which case he succeeds spectacularly. I didn't like him. Nor did I buy him as a great lover, but that might be where Martin chose to concentrate his vanity (ironically, Shopgirl followed a trailer for Lasse Hallström's Casanova).

Last but not least is Schwartzman's Jeremy, who looks as if he got lost on the way to the set of another film--a sequel to Rushmore, perhaps. Fortunately, that very incongruity helps to salvage this one. Arguably, he overdoes the whole slacker-doofus thing, but Jeremy is genuinely funny and even a little touching.

I also liked the ending, in which Tucker reveals the the fate of the central trio. I was less enamored by the mystical mumbo-jumbo that transpires afterwards. That's why, to quote Ebert and Roeper, I'm giving Shopgirl "a marginal thumbs-up," though I agree that the conclusion feels borrowed from Woody Allen's oeuvre. That hadn't occurred to me at the time, but now that I think about it, I suspect Tucker had Annie Hall in mind.

But back to my quibbles, like the score, which isn't horrible, but plays as incongruously portentous in a film aiming for elegance and restraint. Worst of all is the omniscient narration, a device that elevates Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie and Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, but Tucker deploys with great clumsiness here. It's provided, of course, by Martin. Hence, I thought Ray was speaking at first, although he couldn't know the things this God-like creature does. Further, some lines, like "That's life," are just plain flat-footed. Mostly, it sounds tacked-on, an afterthought.  

On the plus side, Peter Suschitzky's crisp cinematography is an asset. He also shot David Cronenberg's Crash, and he makes LA look much like Toronto, i.e. way cleaner than it really is (even if Shopgirl was shot on location). I guess I should condemn such glamorization, which brought me back to Blake Edwards' lovely looking Breakfast at Tiffanys, a far superior effort. But at least this one isn't marred by Mickey Rooney and his unfunny Japanese impression. Instead you get Bridgette Wilson-Sampras playing yet another bitchy blonde--although she sure does it well.

*Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, has a cameo in the film.

Endnote: Shopgirl is currently available on DVD. Images © Touchstone Pictures or related entities. Used for publicity and promotional purposes.


  1. Great observations! I found myself comparing this film to Michael Mann's Collateral, another slightly lacking film with a unique and original view of LA. Why do you think Shopgirl was held back? Could the bad voice over be an add-on? It seems likely but I have no idea. Could it have previewed badly and been mucked up in re-editing? I did think Danes carried the film. She's a rising young star who could soon be equal to the likes of Gael García Bernal or Audrey Tautou. What did you think of Stage Beauty? Even with it's above average production values I think Shopgirl would be nearly unwatchable without her. I'm guessing you see her as more of a Stella than a Blanche. The failure of Bridget Wilson's sabotage was also a nice touch. "Do you have any baggies?" Schwartzman strikes a blow for silly immature men everywhere! And did you notice the audience gasp when Ray described his relationship with Mirabelle? He alternately worships and neglects her, a fool and a rat bastard.

  2. Thanks for your response, David. I missed "Stage Beauty," and I'm not sure why "Shopgirl" was held back, but the reasons you suggest all sound plausible to me. The (generally positive) Variety review indicates "an unusually long post-production period." In the course of doing a little research, I also found that Jimmy Fallon was originally cast as Jeremy (around the same time Schwartzman dropped out of "Everything is Illuminated," I would imagine). Incidentally, I forgot to mention Mirabelle's very funny orange tabby--yet another link to "Breakfast at Tiffanys" (both the film & Truman Capote's more downbeat novella)