Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Film for Lovers: Shopgirl

Yes, I am, in fact, telepathic, and I'm reading all your minds as we speak. Funny how your thoughts seem to have synchronized around a single topic: WHERE IS THE THIRD PART OF FILM FOR LOVERS 2010!?
Worry not, dear readers - it's time for you to get your fix. For part three, we look at the 2005 adaptation of Steve Martin's Shopgirl novella. Martin wrote the screenplay, and he even plays one of the three leads! Imagine that.

Set in Beverly Hills, you'd think the film might be a little more Hollywood-glamorized, but thankfully, it's not. This movie really makes me want to read Steve Martin's books - I haven't actually read the original Shopgirl novella yet, so I can't comment on how they compare, but given Martin's heavy involvement in the film, it's said it's as faithful as a book adaptation can be. Movies that pull that off aren't too common, either.

Shopgirl follows three lead characters: a young woman and her two romantic interests. The young lady in question? Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), an aspiring artist from Vermont getting by working at the Saks Fifth Avenue glove counter in Beverly Hills. Like most people, she leads a mundane, small existence while dreaming of better things, and faces her own pressures, particularly in the form of student loan debts and a dependence on antidepressants. Nothing that millions don't deal with, but subjects rarely approached as part of the character development process in films. A sympathetic, but unglamorous lead in Steve Martin's precise,  clinical study of love and human connection.

Over a short period of time, two very different men appear in her life and begin pursuing her. First, there's Jeremy Kraft (Jason Schwartzman), an awkward, poor, socially clumsy graphic designer around her age, whom she meets at a laundromat. Desperate for a meaningful connection with a human being, Mirabelle gives him a chance where most women would not. This does not go well, between a non-traditional date that fails to function as much of a date to speak of, ending in a sexual encounter where creative alternatives to an actual condom were discussed when one was not readily available. Every woman's dream come true.

Following that disappointment, Mirabelle meets the second man in question - Ray Porter (Steve Martin). Ray's pretty much Jeremy's opposite - wealthy, charming, well-dressed, and far better at saying what she wants to hear in her search for a connection. The two bond quickly, but a tragic misunderstanding quietly begins to undermine their relationship. Ray wants to keep their relationship casual due to his frequent travel between L.A. and Seattle. Mirabelle interprets this wish as his only wanting to see her more.

After failing to hook up with Mirabelle a second time, Jeremy goes on tour with a band, Hot Tears, as a roadie. The band's lead singer makes a pet project of cleaning Jeremy up, introducing him to self improvement tapes and literature as so to clue him in on how to start relating to the opposite sex.

Back in L.A., Ray and Mirabelle's relationship continues on its tragic trajectory as Ray attempts to replace affection with material gifts and Mirabelle devotes herself to him completely. Out there in the world, Jeremy begins to learn - sort of. I won't spoil the breakdown of events, naturally, but as the ending approaches, necessary crashes occur, lessons are learned, and everyone crosses paths again in time.

Originally, Steve Martin wasn't intended to play the part of Ray Porter, interestingly. He himself had supported the idea of Tom Hanks playing the character - with Hanks in the film, it might have had a chance at gaining more mainstream exposure than it ever did. The director, Anand Tucker, encouraged Martin himself to play Ray, since he had the best understanding of the character, both from having written the original novella and from the very basis of the novella being rooted in part in his own personal life experiences early in his career.

Shopgirl got a rather mixed reception from critics, as well. Many loved the film, but nearly as many felt that it missed the mark. Personally, I found the movie to be something of an understated gem. It's colder in tone and far more cerebral than western audiences tend to like their romance to be. In many ways, it's a very clinical dissection of romantic relationships and failures to connect. As a result, despite the appreciable humanity and flawed nature of each of the three characters the film revolves around - as well as the often humorous script - many have found the film a bit difficult to connect with.

When people look to film romance, they tend not to expect - let alone seek out - cerebral stories with wise thoughts to impart through a frequently sad story. There is no perfect man to take Mirabelle's deeply felt suffering away, and she herself is no less flawed. The beauty lies in watching the failures between these characters and the lessons they learn - the ways they grow - as a result of these experiences. Martin highlights the growth necessary in all individuals and all relationships over the course of our lives. No one is a child one day and an adult the next, nor do we suddenly experience contrived coming-of-age epiphanies about "what it means to be an adult." There's no limit to how many conceptions there are of what adulthood "should" mean. I'm no fan of the contrived path so many attempt to follow, and encourage everyone to find their own meaning for "adulthood." There's too much we celebrate as vital in our youth that far too many are convinced adulthood means sacrificing. There's no shortage of unhappy adults in the world. These two things are undoubtedly connected.

Shopgirl ultimately thrives as an honest look at love - too honest for most, in many ways. Each of these characters is human, with moments both admirable and painful. Things happen that aren't right, but aren't necessarily wrong, either, as each grasp for something in a fellow human being. None of them are glamorized, and none of them are ideal - romance being a genre that tends to thrive on the ideal, on the audience's desire to block out reality in both its ugliness and the beauty and meaning that can be found within that. It's not a feel good movie, but it's not a "feel bad" one either. (Let's be honest - this is a subgenre that should exist.) It's an experience that'll leave you feeling something and appreciating that for all our mistakes, people are creatures capable of growth, despite all our glaring imperfections. In Shopgirl, you get all this, plus the expected Steve Martin narration. Let's be honest about that, too - he's one of the only writers and actors in cinema who keeps making that work.

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