Claire Danes……….Mirabelle Buttersfield
Steve Martin……….Ray Porter
Sam Bottoms……….Dan Buttersfield
Frances Conroy……….Catherine Buttersfield
Rebecca Pidgeon……….Christie Richards
Touchstone Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment present Shopgirl. Written by Steve Martin, based on his novella. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated R (for some sexual content and brief language.)
Is it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all? The answers one surmises can be challenging, thought-provoking opinions. Much like the old “if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if nobody’s around” brainteaser. But Shopgirl is not a story about the wilderness or the great outdoors. In fact, no trees were harmed in the making of this film.
Shopgirl is a gentle romantic tale involving a wealthy businessman, a redheaded Saks Fifth Avenue sales associate and an uncouth, twenty-something-year-old stenciler. By discussing romantic movies it’s easy to think of far-fetched plot devices (i.e., the How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days mentality) used in romantic comedies. But the subject of love is not always about laughter or fond memories. Love breeds conflict amongst one’s own desires or needs. With love comes heartache; and it is an emotion that cannot be bought or sold. Or can it?
Ray Porter (Steve Martin) is an affluent businessman who has a keen fashion sense and enjoys indulging himself with the finer things of life. One such fixation this fifty-plus-year-old likes is the company of a younger woman. So when Ray sees Mirabelle (Claire Danes) standing behind a glove counter at Saks from afar, he is enamored. He wants her. He desires her. Ray calmly walks to her counter, so silently that he ends up startling the red-haired beauty. Now that he has her attention, Ray goes through the motions of purchasing some gloves. Perhaps the gray, or maybe the black? “I prefer the black,” she says. He purchases the black based on Mirabelle’s suggestion. Later that evening, she arrives home to find the gloves, neatly gift-wrapped and with a note, waiting on her doorstep. The note asks: “Will you have dinner with me? Ray Porter.”
Well, Mirabelle has a gleam in her eye and a smile on her face. But her happiness comes with trepidation, like her mind is full of quizzical “Why me?” rhetorical questions. She also has to contend with another man who desires her company. This other man is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman). To look at Jeremy is to look at a stray dog that hasn’t been housebroken. His apartment is cluttered with empty coke cans and pizza boxes. His attire is whatever he picks off the floor that smells decent enough. Jeremy may be about the same age as Mirabelle, but he sure doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t have a firm grasp on what makes a date a date. For their first evening out, Jeremy honks his horn expecting Mirabelle to hurry down to his car. Then they take a stroll outside a movie theater, watching people go inside. When Mirabelle suggests they split the cost of movie tickets – probably because she is tired of seeing people enjoying themselves – he agrees, but first he asks if he can borrow two bucks. And this is just days after the two meet inside a Laundromat and he breaks the ice by telling her he’s an okay guy.
Unlike Jeremy, though, Ray doesn’t scratch his head with chopsticks while dining on McDonald’s fast food, nor does he have to borrow money. Ray spares no expense to entertain the much-younger-than-he Mirabelle. He dresses her up in newly purchased garments and takes her to dinner where the forks are silver, not plastic. The relationship that the two have is not one that will likely end in marriage. She is 26, and he is in his mid-fifties. But, it is a relationship based on shared desires, a little sex, and money. Ray is not purchasing a prostitute in Mirabelle, but rather a woman who wines and dines – and dresses – to his standards.
Everything’s swimmingly, until, in a moment of weakness, Ray bares his soul to another concubine. We’d like to believe that all roads are paved with good intentions, but when Ray admits to his having sex with another and acknowledging his relationship with Mirabelle as only an “agreement,” we want to give her a hug and hope she finds solace.
As Mirabelle Buttersfield, Claire Danes gives one of the best performances of the year. She is able to be so entertaining behind the glove counter, at the restaurant, or wherever the film takes her. Better still, she is impressionable and adds little nuances to her character. The anguish she feels after Ray’s disclosure is a crucial reminder of how hard a breakup can be. She lays in her bed for hours on end, refusing to answer the phone.
And where is Jeremy during all of this? Well, he leaves town on an extended road trip with a rock band. It is during this trip that Jeremy is introduced to the world of self-help medication in the form of books, CDs, and DVDs. A rock band whose drug of choice is self-help? Stranger things have happened.
With a wide range of romantic films this year (Pride and Prejudice, Must Love Dogs, et al.), it’s easy to dismiss this big screen adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella. Its purpose is not to be cookie-cutter fodder where the characters whisper sweet nothings in our ear and tell us, “love is grand, love is beautiful.” Shopgirl is about the conditions we sometimes place on relationships and how hard it is to be loved unconditionally.