I had imagined Shopgirl would be pretty good. Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars. Steve Martin wrote the novel and the screenplay, and he’s also the leading man. Claire Danes co-stars, and Jason Schwatzman has a supporting role. I like both of them. There’s even a part for Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, wife of tennis great Pete Sampras, and I was curious to see her somewhere other than courtside. After watching the movie, though, I was mostly disappointed.
This is a May-December story, but not much of a romance. Ray Porter is a vaguely rich and lonely guy who glides tastefully between upscale dinners, deluxe merchandise, and impeccably boring residences. Mirabelle Buttersfield (seriously) is a department-store girl (Saks) with tentative artistic ambitions. Ray Porter happens upon Mirabelle at the store, asks her out via a delivered gift, and they start seeing each other. They have dinners. They have sex. He buys her things. He goes away on business. Then he comes back. They have dinner and sex.
Which brings me to my main complaint with the movie: There is no real life here. Steve Martin’s Ray Porter (always referenced by his full name, even in Martin’s narration) never shows a single card. He exists in an envelope of muted elegance. He never gets angry. He only laughs to be polite. He seems passionate about nothing — not his work, not even his young girlfriend’s naked body. He drinks wine, but it doesn’t loosen him up a bit. We see him with his analyst, but absolutely nothing is revealed. Ray Porter is a blank and empty man and Steve Martin’s writing is ridiculously spare and stilted.
Jason Schwartzman’s character, Jeremy Kraft, serves as a cartoonish counterpoint to Ray Porter. Jeremy is a juvenile, unsuccessful, self-conscious rock-and-roll nerd. He also goes out with Mirabelle, but these encounters are all clumsiness and pauperdom. Get it? He’s the exact opposite of Ray Porter. Schwartzman is interesting, but Steve Martin hasn’t written any real feelings for Jeremy either, so he’s stuck being a frustratingly wacky caricature.
The really worthwhile thing in this movie is Claire Danes, who is able to convey through gestures, vocal inflections, and facial expressions a depth of humanity that goes far beyond the script. She’s a very good actress, even when she returns to her fake parents in a fake Vermont. By comparison, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras comes off like a celebrity cameo on a TV sitcom.
Over at Film Freak Central, Bill Chambers writes, “Shopgirl is like Lost in Translation on steroids.” I would say it’s more like Lost in Translation on Prozac. I have rated it an ambivalent 3 out of 5 at Netflix.