Sampling the Merchandise

'Shopgirl' actor-author can't cut the mustard, but licks the jar

It's a good time to be an old, rich white guy. All right, that's an eternal truth, but right now Hollywood is playing up the silver-haired bachelor as if he's going out of style--or maybe just ready to keel over. Like fellow comedic stalwart Bill Murray, Steve Martin no longer plays the fool, but the wise, wealthy sophisticate. Where once stood a loser--pants around his ankles, hands clutching a table lamp--now there's a dapper gentleman who's not just rich, but private-jet rich.

Martin's placement as an elderly Casanova is a bit more deliberate than Murray's, because Martin wrote the novella on which Shopgirl was based. In the story, the unfortunately named Mirabelle Buttersfield (played by a charmingly plain Claire Danes) spends her days hidden behind the antiquated Saks Fifth Avenue counter that supplies full-length gloves to debutantes. By night, she lies on the outer edge of her bed, accentuating its empty space as only a lonely film character can. But soon she's plagued by two romantic choices: Jason Schwartzman's fidgety weirdo Jeremy, who borrows money (from her) to take her on a date; or Martin's suave Ray, who claims he's not looking for a commitment, just a warm body. Mirabelle takes up with the latter, and what ensues feels very much like a relationship. Not surprisingly, Mirabelle mistakes Ray's mixed signals for love, by which time Jeremy has hit the road with a friend's band.

This is by no means a new venture for the 60-year-old Martin, as either actor or writer. He posed himself as a midlife-crisis sufferer trying to keep up with a pretty young thing in L.A. Story--and that was 14 years ago. And Schwartzman, of course, already competed with Murray in Rushmore. But whereas we all knew there was no way poor teenage Max would win the girl, things aren't so certain for Jeremy. Shopgirl's love triangle works because it doesn't favor either man, not even through the superficial eye of the camera. Watching Martin caress the inner thigh of a woman less than half his age is really no more repulsive than seeing the hirsute Schwartzman naked from the socks up. Feminists might argue that Danes's twentysomething, so desperate for attention that she'll make a booty call to the monkey man, perpetuates myths of impending spinsterdom. But it's the single senior who warrants the most pity. Much like Murray's numerous forays into the role of graying loner, Martin radiates an impenetrable sadness that bleeds into the rest of the film.

Trying it on for size: Claire Danes and Steve Martin in 'Shopgirl'
Touchstone Pictures
Trying it on for size: Claire Danes and Steve Martin in 'Shopgirl'

Shopgirl will garner plenty of comparisons to Lost in Translation, in part due to the meticulous pacing, which Martin's characters slow down even more. Ray and Mirabelle aren't a fun couple: In Tokyo for a night, they'd probably stay in and order Chinese. But the fact that their relationship isn't particularly energized by money, or even sex, helps define it as one of comfort (and those are the toughest to leave). When the clinically depressed Mirabelle is sprawled out on her bed, sobbing and conjuring eerie flashbacks to My So-Called Life, Ray takes care of her, and the idea of a long-term commitment isn't unthinkable. The pairing isn't perfect but it's a nice change of pace given that most romantic comedies come with easy answers.

While Martin the actor knows his flaws, Martin the author--who slips in his own third-person voiceover--is more of a narcissist. Nothing says I did this! Me me me! like a personal reading. (Save it for Barnes & Noble, Steve.) These brief passages of text also show how much work his basic narration skills need. In setting up the voiceovers, the film literally slows down to make sure everyone is paying attention to hackneyed musings about, say, what it's like to lose something you never really had. Martin fares better with witty dialogue and character development. While he doesn't make himself the bad guy, he's also aware that he's not the crowd favorite. Jeremy the spaz is sweet and harmless, as long as he can be convinced that a plastic bag is no substitute for a condom. He's also hilarious, even if his best lines make his pitiable date wince. Still, from the moment he meets Mirabelle in a laundromat and assures her, "I'm an okay guy, by the way," the audience has someone to root for-- with occasional reservations. While other films about falling in love would have used Jeremy as a gag or just another obstacle for a girl trying to make the right choice, Shopgirl thrives on its open interpretation of "right." Maybe Martin isn't so concerned with winning or losing. Maybe old guys just want to prove they can still play the game.

 
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