Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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Film: Shopgirl (PG-13)

By Amy Diaz

Claire Danes, Steve Martin and Jason Schwartzman form an awkward, lukewarm love triangle in Shopgirl, a sweet adaptation of Martin’s novella.

Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes) is every girl who lives in Los Angeles but isn’t there for showbiz. She works an OK job (ladies’ gloves counter at Saks — the job is both elegant and boring), lives in an OK apartment (the less trendy part of trendish Silver Lake) and occasionally dates an OK boy. In the beginning of the movie, the boy is Jeremy (Schwartzman), a 20something child who stencils designs on amplifiers (the kernel of an actual career in design). He awkwardly hits on Mirabelle when they meet at a Laundromat and even more awkwardly attempts to romance her in their two halting dates before he heads out on the road with a band.

Mirabelle seems to despair a bit that she will achieve even the smallest wisp of affection (she coaxes a second date out of Jeremy on the off-chance that he’ll hold her for a bit). But then she meets Ray Porter (Martin), an older man to be sure but one who is not afraid to ask her out properly, take her to dinner and (on the second date), make love to her with appropriate tenderness. He tells her that he’s just looking for friendship and sex and nothing more and Mirabelle understands this but is quickly taken in with his kindness, his sophistication and, though not overtly, his ability to pay for everything. The paying for things makes their relationship easy (she wears nice clothes, they eat in nice restaurants, he pays off her college loans to avoid feeling guilty) but does not keep even the two cool customers of Mirabelle and Ray from forming some emotional attachments. In Ray’s case, his reaction is to try to return the balance to a more clinical arrangement. In Mirabelle’s case, her reaction to the discovery that she loves Ray more than he loves her is to despair at this inequity. All the while, Jeremy is on the road learning how to take his first few steps into adulthood.

Throughout the movie, we see Mirabelle create art and it’s this artistic side of her that separates her from the flirty, overtly sexual shopgirl at the perfume counter. While that flashy blonde sex-kittens her way through life, Mirabelle will accept a relationship that is perhaps as much commerce as emotion but doesn’t seek it out. There’s something very L.A. about this — the idea that a nice romance (not completely genuine but a reasonable facsimile) can be had with a discrete exchange of cash and sex and nobody has to feel ashamed. There’s also something very L.A. about the vague sense of uneasiness this arrangement gives all involved. Though Ray believes he’s made his no-future position clear and Mirabelle believes she’s heard it, both avoid dealing with this situation until absolutely forced.

Shopgirl is light but not fluffy — it is about a passing romance that is doomed to end the moment it begins. It lets the characters stumble through their unconvincing arrangement and then gently attempt to console themselves when the arrangement falls apart. The movie has no sharp edges, nothing harsh (the harshest parts of Ray and Mirabelle’s relationship are bundled up in a pillow of sophistication and arms-length detachedness). But it doesn’t go to the trouble of prettying things up, either. Like the coolly third-person-ish novel itself, Shopgirl is a quietly intriguing character study that lets you go before its preciousness becomes too overwhelming.