The opening shots of Steve Martin's wistful, romantic, jewellike, and at times uncomfortably creepy Shopgirl prowl the aisles of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.
They glide over the rows of elegant, expensive merchandise, and finally rest on Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), who stands (or rather, leans, her elbows on the case before her) like the rarest, and least noticed, object in the shop. That idea, a little unkind, is right there in the title.
Mirabelle (Martin's introductory narration confides with us) needs someone to notice her. She carries an air of diffidence for a woman surrounded by the ostentatious and lavishly unnecessary.
The film doesn't pretend she isn't gorgeous, but rather, lacks confidence; she's at the age when a college degree makes you wonder why you're still in the service sector - you can see how languidness in such a place might render someone invisible.
Mirabelle sells gloves. Not the kind that warm hands (this is Los Angeles, home of the Santa Ana winds), but the thin, silken type that roll up to the elbow and once signaled a certain upper-crust, high-toned sensibility and refinement, and a tastefulness (though not so tasteful as to be above rubbing it in others' faces).
One day, Ray Porter (Martin), a suave, silver-haired, mild-and-not-so-crazy guy with a muted voice and a cultivated eye and millions of dollars from a software deal, is shopping for pretty things. He is a connoisseur (of wine, homes, and women, not in that order) and takes an almost curatorial interest in Mirabelle, with her small, boxy apartment, cheap bottles of wine, old pickup truck (driven to California from her home in Vermont), college loans, and medicine cabinet of antidepressants.
Danes plays her perfectly: The charmed Mirabelle is intimidated by Ray's willingness to lavish wealth on her. She has only one thing to offer him, and that's Mirabelle.
If you're thinking "Pygmalion by way of Sofia Coppola" - if you're picturing a latter-day Bill Murray - you're not so far off.
But unlike Lost in Translation, this May-December fling is less opaque. Director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), who lays it on a tad thick at times (giving Shopgirl a sort of mannered, 1950s image of high-mindedness), would rather not leave their sweet nothings vague and unspoken; both Shopgirl and Lost in Translation, on the other hand, are two sides of the same coin, forged with a certain melancholy and big-city loneliness.
Which is (though only one reason) why Mirabelle doesn't react with horror and march down to the human-relations office at Saks and quit over what happens next: After their initial meeting, after buying a pair of gloves from Mirabelle, Ray gets her home address from the store and mails her the gloves, with a note attached: "Have dinner with me." He calls, she accepts.
It's here I should mention that Mirabelle has a second, less-promising suitor, one as feral as Ray Porter is smooth. Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman, of Rushmore) honks the horn in the driveway when he picks Mirabelle up on their first date. He also wants to go Dutch.
He makes fonts for a living (when he is making one). Martin, who adapted his own novella, does not shy from the chilliness of a guy like Ray (who is only stingy when it comes to emotions), but he's almost cruel with Jeremy. Schwartzman is very funny - practically a picture of Martin himself in 1979.
But the better Jeremy looks to Mirabelle, the more he is forced to act and appear more Raylike.
Shopgirl, I think, is honest about how relationships play out and how people try to impose rules and restrictions on feelings - up to a point. And yet that withholding, that stuffy way it views the world only through a lens of wealth and status and taste, is what makes it work so well, even magically at times.
If it were a typical romantic comedy, it might have starred Reese Witherspoon, and been called something colder like, oh, Sales Associate and ended with a wedding. Shopgirl is more open to possibilities, like heartbreak, which modern romantic comedies go out of the way to avoid.
It allows Danes the room to flood entire scenes with the puzzled look of the truly hurt; she does Oscar-friendly work here.
Shopgirl is also not about how Mirabelle realizes Ray is a jerk and Jeremy is a good guy. Both contain those qualities at certain points. It's about how a relationship that puts one side at a disadvantage is not without potential for real affection. Ray gives Mirabelle things not to keep her down on the farm but because it gives him real pleasure. And she takes real pleasure from his pleasure. Money is what makes their relationship possible, and both accept that for a while. Eventually, though, the check arrives.
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