Saturday, November 26, 2005

Day 57: Shopgirl

Worthwhile, though far too mawkish at times, Shopgirl's a sweet, affecting movie about a young woman living in L.A. She's kind-of an artist, works at Saks, and can barely afford the minimum payment toward her student loans. The movie focuses on two relationships in her life, one with a scattered, aimless young man and the other with a wealthy, classy older man. The movie indulges in too many saccharine-laced montages, or too much awkwardly used slow motion when it should be getting deeper into the nitty gritty of its characters (something it does well otherwise) and narration is used in an inconsistent, clumsy way to fill in details. However, it's quite thoughtful and exceedingly sincere, and for all its sappiness, it's this sincerity that saves it from ruin.

Claire Danes is wonderful as the main character, nuanced and realistic. It's a well-observed performance, one that seems tailor made for her skills as an actor. Unfortunately, in the role of the older man, Steve Martin, while not exactly bad, seems more aloof and embarrassed than his character warrants; his is a shy performance, one that at times is fantastic, but at others feels far too shallow or reserved. His work as an off-screen narrator is great, though, and this is no surprise since he wrote the book the movie's based on. Playing the young man, Jason Schwartzman is a scream, though he's playing the part a lot more broadly than the other two so, at times, he feels as if he's from a different movie. (This feeling is enhanced by the fact that Schwartzman is often framed in a shot by himself, talking to or reacting to someone off camera, lending the feeling that he's doing a one-man show that happened to be inserted into the film).

I was quite impressed with the way the movie used clothes. It's not that clothes play a very prominent role in the diegesis of the film, but the way they were used to define and develop character was compelling. It's interesting that both men are drawn to Danes in clothing-based environments (Schwartzman at the Laundromat, Martin at Saks) and, as her relationship with Martin inspires a new kind of happiness in Danes, the outfits she wears (outfits he can afford to buy for her) are presented as the most prominent evidence of this change (not to dismiss Danes's performance in the role; in fact, it's also due to how she wore the changing outfits that I noticed this aspect of the film at all). Wardrobe is something I usually pay the least amount of attention to in a movie, and this felt like a nice primer in how it can be used to reveal, develop, and enhance a character.

The movie takes too many of the moments mentioned in the first paragraph to give it an unqualified rave, and yet its tone is compelling. I enjoyed the way it veered from the lunacy of Schwartzman's character to the quietude of Martin's and I liked how Danes's problems (which, really, don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world and all that) were dealt with seriously, though never indulging in histrionics (she's not going to kill herself over either of these guys, she just wants to be happier). And I loved the set decoration here too; it was just right in all cases. Danes and Schwartzman live in very similar apartments, but what they choose to do with the space reveals more than thirty minutes of dialogue between the two could. It lacked only a little more dramatic "oomph*" to push it from being a movie I liked a lot to a movie I loved.

*dramatic oomph: Aristotle called this the finest of all things, though he could never quantify it with words, really. He just told me once that the thing he liked most about drama was its oomph. I nodded politely and sipped my tea, waiting for him to leave so I could go to bed, but he wound up talking for 2 more hours about the nature of dramatic "flat-itude" and how it led to a lack of "dramatic oomph." Eventually he left because he had to feed his goldfish and I vowed never to invite him to one of my parties ever again.


Redphi5h said...

I caught Danes on Letterman the other night. She mentioned that at age 17, Martin holed her up at an Oscars party, complaining about his love life, and at some stage she told him that he had to throw out the self-help books. Ha!

I got the impression that the whole book/movie was a Danes-inspired fantasy. Dirty rotten scoundrel.

Mr. Captain Magnficent said...

yeah, seriously, Aristotle can totally overstay his welcome... sometimes i just want to smack his face.



FRAGGOT said...

the Last Detail with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. It would be good to see a review of that.

Naveen Gupta said...

We have a similar interest. Read this:

Ted said...

It's always dangerous (at least), if not flat-out counterproductive, to compare a movie and its source.

But, having admired the book (on a lot of levels), "Shopgirl" tasted vaguely of disappointment. It captured most of the tone (but little of the wry heart) of the book.

The book was never about its plot; but rather about the inner life of these compellingly flawed characters. Hollywood almost never gets that, and while "Shopgirl" didn't fall into typical Hollywood fare (thank God no Deus came ex Machina to save the day), it still fell (to me, at least) short of its potential.