By sizemore Last edited 157 months ago

Shopgirl is a great looking film, elegant and cool with some top notch performances from all involved, but unfortunately it has a shallowness at its heart that prevents it from being quite as good as it should be.

It's a very long time now since Steve Martin was a wild and crazy guy and from LA Story on he's adopted a more restrained and sometimes downright pedestrian persona for a series of fair to middling family orientated comedies. He's as popular as ever, but his audience shifted with his appeal and that left a lot of us out in the cold wondering where Dr Hfuhruhurr had gone while watching deteriorating video copies of The Jerk. Then out of nowhere he published a novella and we found a new side to him although his new direction as an author probably signaled the final nail in his more madcap career. Shame.

Not that 'Shopgirl' the book was bad - just the opposite. We really enjoyed it and it made perfect sense to adapt it to film as it was difficult to read without visualising Martin in one of the roles.

Ray Porter is a fifty-something rich business type who falls for twenty-something shopgirl Mirabelle (Claire Danes) and proceeds to sweep her off her feet while Jason Schwartzman's Jeremy hovers on the sidelines. There are a couple of stumbling blocks here - some have found the May to December relationship a little hard to swallow and there's something more than a little calculated about Ray's seduction of the younger (and poorer) Mirabelle, but it's a film as much about miscommunication (and sometimes a complete lack of communication) so in the end the ages of the characters don't really amount to much. Jeremy is supposed to be the antithesis of Ray, but through a speedy (and contrived) process of self improvement he gets himself back in the game and onto Mirabelle's arm.

The shopgirl herself is quirky and fun, a stifled artist who falls hard for Ray while never quite accepting the limitations of their relationship. Danes is great in this role - the first decent thing aside from Romeo & Juliet that she's had since My So Called Life. Mirabelle's old fashioned name and her refusal to take sexual fishing advice from a colleague signal her as an old fashioned girl drawn to Ray's more sophisticated ways. Not that she isn't intrigued initially by Jeremy's more basic goofishness (his mistaking a mint for a condom is a highlight as is his solution to the problem that that brings up). Schwartzman is very much in Rushmore/Huckabees mode to the extent that you worry if he's ever going to surprise us. Martin though is particularly good, having obviously lived with the story and character for so long that he's very at ease in Ray's shoes (although the plot wavers slightly from the source) and we understand immediately why Mirabelle chooses him over Jeremy. It's not only about the money. Although of course the lifestyle looms large in the background, but as something to strive for rather than have it handed on a plate.

There are two main problems. The first is that the novella helps fill in a lot of gaps so if you haven't read it you may feel that the whole thing is rather slight. The movie fails to render all three characters as well as Martin's story does and we're not really sure that seeing the movie and then reading the book will have the same effect. Secondly there is a huge problem with Martin voicing the omniscient narrator as well as playing Ray. We can see why it would appeal as the narrator is after all the author's voice, but it sets up an overlap between the character and the moments when the voiceover intervenes. It's a shame because the sections where the narration kicks in are well done, but it would have been wiser to farm that particular job out to someone else.

The direction is well handled by former producer Anand Tucker. He's also landed the coveted directing job for the first film in the Philip Pullman 'His Dark Materials' trilogy.

Interesting, intelligent and a great improvement over anything that Martin has done in the last decade, Shopgirl is the kind of romcom that lingers in the memory. It also bodes well for a future adaptation of 'The Pleasure of My Company', Martin's second novel which is funnier and more satisfying than 'Shopgirl' (while that doesn't seem to have been optioned yet his play 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile' is currently in preproduction).

Our more shallow readers can forget all of the above and just go see it for a glimpse of Dane's rear end which while not as interesting as Mexican cat juggling is still sure to be a big draw.

Shopgirl opens tomorrow. The official (American) website is here.

Last Updated 19 January 2006