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Kofi's hat

MP3s, music news and reviews, and a sprinkling of pop culture. Named by Aqualung's Matt Hales, after his son.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Ink in my blood, a song in my heart. Metaphor is my middle name.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Dissecting "Shopgirl"

Shopgirl stars Steve Martin, Claire Danes, and Jason Schwartzman. It is being promoted as a romantic comedy, but it's neither romantic nor a comedy. There are a few laughs, but it's really not romantic at all. It's a fairly icy story of characters who randomly select other characters to "love" and/or sleep with for no apparent reason other than proximity, then randomly change their minds, then repeat. Sure, some of the characters speak of love in a positive way, but they seem to have no real understanding of it. We never get to know any of the characters well, or understand their choices. From what I came to know of most of them and their choices, I wound up disliking almost all of them.

The unusual premise in the film is that a man in his 50s (Steve Martin's character, Ray Porter), walks into Saks Fifth Avenue and buys an expensive pair of gloves from a shopgirl (the much younger Mirabelle Buttersfield, played by Clare Danes). He has the gloves sent to her home, along with an invitation to dinner. He later shows up at the store and tells her the name of the restaurant, the date, and the time of the reservation, but not why he "chose" her. She shows up at the restaurant, and asks a lot of questions, but narrator Steve Martin makes a point of Mirabelle's not asking this one question, "Why her?" My friend thought this was foreshadowing that Ray was dangerous, perhaps a rapist. I generally enjoy Steve Martin's films, but I have not read Shopgirl. However, I was familiar enough with it that I knew Ray was not a rapist... he was a man who for some reason wanted to strike up some sort of relationship with this shopgirl, and who succeeded in doing so. It is at least bad writing to highlight the importance of the question "Why her?" in this way and then leave the audience without any answer.

My friend also didn't understand why Steve Martin was the narrator. I explained that he wrote the novella Shopgirl, and adapted it for the screen. If that explanation is necessary for his serving as narrator to make any sense, he should not have been the narrator. In a film where there are three main characters, why choose the one the audience feels the most emotional distance from to narrate actions not involving him? To make the film feel more cold than it already does? It felt odd. Why should Ray narrate how Mirabelle feels about having sex with another man? It just didn't make sense; it had nothing to do with him. Ray wasn't there and never knows about this; it is not relevant to their relationship. So we are asked to believe that there is Ray and Narrator Ray, who is really Steve Martin. It's a distraction, and took me out of the movie.

My friend maintains that Shopgirl has no plot. This is perhaps a bit overly harsh. To oversimplify, how about "Girl meets boy, girl becomes involved with boy, girl then also becomes involved with "older boy" because he purchases gloves for her (thus cheating on boy?), complexities ensue involving these three people and others as two hours go by (okay, the movie is 104 minutes long. Alas it feels like two hours go by).

I have seen the movie described as "telling the truth about relationships". Told my friend this and she said, "That they're meaningless and empty?" In the bathroom after the movie (well, that's where this was said!), one woman rather longingly said, "That movie made me want to fall in love." Her friend seemed shocked, and replied, "Really? With the issues in that movie, it made me concerned about falling in love!"

Anyone living their life or conducting their relationships like these characters might well have a harder time finding a genuine love and being able to sustain it, but that's not "love's fault" or the movie's fault... I didn't like any of the relationships in Shopgirl. A healthy, genuine, loving, mutually giving relationship is not to be found here. These are sad, lonely characters, and I wanted to be able to root for their happiness... Some want love -- as best they understand it. All of them want sex. Most are pretty shallow, selfish, and unlikeable.

The one likeable character is Jeremy, played by Jason Schwartzman. At the beginning of the movie he is unpolished. He has scraggly facial hair, does not always speak smoothly, and needs to borrow money from Mirabelle both at the laundromat and at the movies. In contrast, Ray immediately demonstrates his wealth by purchasing those expensive gloves for Mirabelle. He then meets her for dinner in Beverly Hills. He later pays off her student loans (without asking first), and often gives her expensive presents, including birthday gifts, which he gives her on the wrong day. Early in the relationship, Ray tells his therapist (who we never see again) that Mirabelle understands the relationship is strictly about sex, and he intends the relationship to be an open one. Mirabelle does not think of herself as a prostitute (or think it is all about sex). She mistakes the gifts as tokens of love, though Ray never says the word. Ray lives in a minimalistic house -- all glass and white, very clean... cold. At some point it becomes more-or-less clear that Ray does have some real feelings for Mirabelle, but the depiction of these feelings is weak. How most of the characters feel about each-other is muddled... The feeling is mostly that they float from person to person, and anyone will do. Mirabelle becomes attached to Ray, as though she loves him, but it's not clear why she feels this way or when it happens... Are gifts all it takes to win her love? She does not seem to have any real understanding of love.

Jason Schwartzman's character "improves" himself through the course of the movie, inside and out (if you consider a shave and a suit an improvement over a t-shirt and jeans; I believe we are asked to accept that the changes make him "better"). He was arguably the character the least in need of "fixing". Martin could argue his desire to improve is proof that he was a "good guy". If so, I say it's still more proof he deserved a happier ending (not a spoiler, really). I also found some of the actions of the new, enlightened Jeremy's inexplicable. They just didn't make any sense.

I feel the same way about the movie. For the most part, the film was about a bunch of characters I didn't feel I knew doing a bunch of things for reasons I didn't understand. I am a Steve Martin fan, and was surprised I disliked Shopgirl so much. It wasn't agony. It was watchable... and there are some cute moments and a few good laughs, some from Martin, mostly from Schwartzman, who is excellent. Danes' Mirabelle has troubke making connections and it bothers her. We are told this, not shown it. This, and some other aspects of Mirabelle's character are not sufficiently well-depicted. I blame this perhaps 60% on the writing and 40% on Danes. There are some things about her character I think she should have showed us, and didn't, but I'm not sure the script was written in a way that helped her do this well, or that director Anand Tucker gave her any guidance other than to reveal the character as slowly as she did, and to sometimes act like something of a cipher. I thought her character was supposed to be more complex, though, and there were only the oddest hints of that. I found it confusing. Again, why was Ray interested in her? Why was Schwartzman interested in her? Why? Why? Why?

I enjoyed Death Cab for Cutie's "Someday You Will Be Loved" "not only because I like its sound, but because it's so damn cold." Ben Gibbard sings the track from the point of view of a selfish character, and we don't understand why he is that way, and I didn't find him especially likeable, but I did find him intriguing. An unlikeable character with somewhat mysterious motivations may be entertaining for a song that lasts a shade over three minutes, but it's a tougher task to almost entirely populate a feature-length film with such characters. I often found Seinfeld's characters unlikeable, but the show was often funny, and I understood the characters motivations. If the characters are unlikeable and I don't understand them, why should I care?

Disclaimer: None of these songs are in the movie...

MP3:Fountains of Wayne - Kid Gloves (from Out of State Plates)

MP3:Foreigner - Cold As Ice (from The Very Best... And Beyond, etc.)

MP3:The Postal Service - Clark Gable (from Give Up)

MP3:Death Cab for Cutie - Someday You Will Be Loved (from Plans)

MP3:Of Montreal - There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics (from If He Is Protecting Our Nation, Then Who Will Protect Big Oil, Our Children?)


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