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Film review

Better shop around

Steve Martin's story line is too simple, leaving talented actors with nothing to do.

Published November 3, 2005

[Photo: Buena Vista Pictures]
Ray Porter, played by Steve Martin, showers Shopgirl’s Mirabelle Butterfield, played by Claire Danes, with expensive gifts.

The word "novella" irks me, as if an author doesn't have enough material for a full-fledged book and won't stoop to write a suitably short story. Shopgirl began as a novella, and now becomes a "filmella," too slight to be considered a movie yet padded enough to pose as a feature-length work.

Steve Martin's self-satisfied adaptation of his novella is the problem with Shopgirl. When a 130-page read leads to 104 minutes of screen time, it's evidence that someone really admires his wordplay. But reading Martin describe the Saks Fifth Avenue store where Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes) sells gloves, the apartment where she kills time and the dissimilar men wooing her is preferable to a filmmaker showing them.

The blessing and curse of cinema is its ability to compress ideas into simple images. When the ideas are this simple, cinema crushes them to dullness. Mirabelle's unremarkable life simply doesn't deserve big screen treatment. Any author other than a Hollywood favorite like Martin likely wouldn't get it done.

Not much happens in the plot, but here goes: Mirabelle's perpetual singleness is changed by introductions to two men. Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) is a practically penniless artist whose eccentric behavior is kind of cute. Ray Porter (Martin, more subdued than usual) is a wealthy cipher showering her with gifts and no promise of commitment. Who will she choose? And why should we care?

The redundancy of these characters can be disguised in print. Onscreen, it's practically impossible. Nobody changes; they just become more aware of their limitations, something that Martin and director Anand Tucker could use. Mirabelle shifts her attention to one lover then the other then back again, like a game of Eeny Meeny Miney Mo of the heart. Knowing Martin's leanings toward true romance in his screenplays for Roxanne and L.A. Story make her choice an easy guess.

Mirabelle's passive nature leaves little room for Danes to express herself. She's an object of affection and nothing more. Schwartzman (I Huckabees) is getting on my nerves with his self-conscious bohemianism, pushed so hard that it's questionable whether Mirabelle or anyone else would find him attractive. Martin is occasionally interesting with his restraint, but a hint of smugness also sneaks through. This is, after all, his baby.

Perhaps realizing the slim narrative, Martin injects a mistaken identity twist with Mirabelle's co-worker (Bridgette Wilson) seducing Jeremy. The humor sticks out like a sore thumb in this otherwise subdued story. What Shopgirl needs as a movie isn't comedy but whimsy, like the omniscient road signs of L.A. Story or a lovelorn fireman's Cyrano nose. Nothing wild or crazy, but more than plain and simple.


Grade: C

Director: Anand Tucker

Cast: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson, Sam Bottoms, Frances Conroy

Screenplay: Steve Martin, based on his novella

Rating: R; profanity, sexual content

Running time: 104 min.

[Last modified November 2, 2005, 12:06:07]

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