Shopgirl: Anand Tucker’s Romantic Drama, Starring Claire Danes

A romantic triangle of three misfits is at the center of Anand Tucker’s “Shopgirl,” based on Steve Martin’s short, minimalist novella, published in 2000.

The woman in between is shopgirl Mirabelle (Claire Danes) and the two men she’s dating are a rich older businessman (Steve Martin) and a poor but charming slacker (Jason Schwartzman).

Intermittently poignant, this bittersweet portrait of modern relationships follows the intertwined lives these trio who, though different in class and other matters, are looking for the same thing, meaningful connection. Overall, “Shopgirl” is a disappointing, and a bit dull, movie that’s likely to divide critics and viewers along love it or hate it.

Neither a conventional comedy, not a typical fairy-tale romance, the movie walks a fine line between the two genres, which might present a marketing problem when the film bows theatrically in October. Despite honorable intentions, this tender exploration of love in its messiest form suffers from a major problem: Whose story is it telling and from whose point of view. On the surface, since Mirabelle is the central, ordinary “femme fatale (Ill explain later), youre inclined to think that it’s her POV.

However, the film begins and ends with a third-person narration by Martin, which skews the story to his side, suggesting that Mirabelle is being looked at from the outside, through a male gaze, and an older one at that.

Consider, for instance, the voice-over that ends the film: “As Ray watches Mirabelle walk away, he feels a loss. How is it possible, he wonders, to miss a woman who he kept at a distance, so that when she was gone, he would not miss her Only then does he realize how in wanting part of her but not all of her, he had hurt them both, and he cannot justify his actions except that, well, it was life.”

The effort to present a fairytale and a realistic modernist story is not entirely effective either. Some of the tale’s ambiguities and ironies are intentional, based on Martin’s knowledge of the text, first as the book’s writer, and then as its screenwriter, producer, and star. Others are not. Best-case scenario for this movie is to provide a fodder for thought about older men-younger women relationships, which until recently used to be the norm, onscreen and off. Late in their careers, Cooper, Gable, Bogart, and Grant dated women who were half their age.

Offscreen, we recall the scandals involve in Woody Allen courting (and later marrying) the daughter of his companion, Mia Farrow, the shock of Roman Polanski’s charges of raping a teenager, and then the news of his marriage to actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who’s two generations his junior. While these patterns still exist today, we are also witnessing the reverse trend, of older women dating younger men, hence the enormous publicity accorded to Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s “unusual” relationship.

As the story of an older man-younger woman, “Shopgirl” recalls the central couple in “Lost in Translation,” a better picture, in which the bond was between Bill Murray (a contemporary of Martin, and peer-alumni of SNL) and Scarlett Johnasson, though that bond was more platonic than carnal. On the plus side, Martin steers clear from the “Lolita” syndrome, as evident in Nabokov’s novel and its various film versions,

“Shopgirl” is an ambitious film that only partly fulfills its aim to provoke thinking about the confusion and miscommunication between men and women that characterize contemporary affairs. Occasionally, the story raises conversation-sparking questions about the different things we want from love, and how we often settle for what we need.

The tale begins when the paths of three disparate Los Angelenos unexpectedly collide. Mirabelle is an appealing but unspectacular woman who works in the unfrequented glove department at Saks Fifth Avenue. With plenty of time on her hands, she observes the customers, and her look naturally gravitates toward couples, both old and young, who seem to be happy together. The quiet, thwarted, yearning Mirabelle stands behind the dull glove case, anxious for the right customer to appear. She lives with no one but her cat to keep her company in a drab L.A. apartment, hoping to pay off her huge student loans.

Enter Jeremy, whom Mirabelle meets at the local laundromat, a hapless font-maker of little ambition and zero means. They begin an awkward relationship with dates to Universal City, though both lack the money to see a movie or enjoy the attractions. Sex doesn’t come easy, either. After awkward beginnings and interruptions (lack of condo, her cat’s interference), they finally go to bed.

Then along comes Ray Porter, an older, wealthier, worldly charmer, whom Mirabelle meets at Saks, while he buys a pair of gloves. The next day, a beautifully wrapped package arrives in her apartment with the black gloves inside. With gentlemanly courtship of the old school, Ray sweeps Mirabelle completely off her feet.

Utterly honest, Mirabelle tells Jermey of the affair, and the latter embarks on a music bus tour that will prove to be life changing. Both Jeremy and Mirabelle undergo a major transformation, though there’s a question mark about the future of Ray, a cold, detached man, incapable of feelings and commitment.

Martin has said that he viewed his slim novella as “Jane Austen for the twenty-first century,” and you can see why. It’s an unlikely trio, conditioned by different interpretations of who they are, and what their relationships mean. Which leads to a tangle of unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and unanticipated realizations. In the end, what happens to Mirabelle, Jermey, and Ray is not what any of them has dreamed off.

Since the movie is set in Los Angeles, viewers may recall Martin’s valentine to the city in “L.A. Story,” in which he also courted a much younger woman, but not as young as Mirabelle, Sarah Jessica Parker. Other than these elements, the films don’t have much in common.

The film is directed by British helmer Anand Tucker, known for his theatrical work and indie movie, “Hilary and Jackie,” with Emily Watson in an Oscar-nominated performance. Though the problems reside in the narrative, Tucker can’t help much as a director, because he, too, is unable to locate the center, or what’s the story’s most compelling strand.

Despite the fact that Martin wrote the script and was involved throughout, “Shopgirl” misses on what was special about the book, its tone and mood. The novella was light yet pensive. I won’t say that Tucker’s version maims the novella, but his version certainly lacks its poignancy.

The book and film seem personal, and Martin deserves credits for exposing intimate parts of himself never revealed before. He captures something of the syndrome of fiftysomething men whore dating twetysomething girls and end up hurting them.

The main characters are not shallow or opportunistic. For one thing, Mirabelle still has the chance to date a guy her own age. And the rich “older man” is not even remotely in it for sex. “Shopgirl” is neither an indictment of nor an apology for the “trophy girlfriend” syndrome. In fact, the movie offers meditative, wistful insights into why older guys crave younger gals.

A word about the sex scenes is in order. The first time Ray and Mirabelle go to bed is awkwardly touching for both, with elements of shock and voyeurism. When Martin returns to the bedroom, he finds Mirabelle naked, lying on her stomach. Looking at the young woman and caressing her body may offer greater gratification than intercourse.

The three leads are in top form. Dominating the film, Danes is heartbreaking in a number of scenes. As Mirabelle, she delivers her best work in years. Danes’ character is deceptively simple, based on her vulnerable yet insistent need for love or connection of any kind. Danes takes risks in playin a complex woman, who isn’t on the expected path to a more mythical happily-ever-after romance. However, though mischievous, Mirabelle is not malicious and she never exploits her relationship with Ray. With uncanny ability, Danes captures Mirabelle’s contradictory qualities, her romantic naivet and poignant vulnerability.

Schwartzman’s turn as Mirabelle’s more “age appropriate” and scruffy suitor, brings a satisfying dose of offbeat humor and arcane warmth to his role. By now, having appeared in “Rushmore” and other similar roles.
Schwartzman is an expert at playing goofballs yearning for maturity.

As writer, Martin has produced a new kind of script. Unlike “Roxanne,” it’s not based on a famous play, and unlike “L.A Story,” it isn’t a rollicking satire. As an actor, Martin plays one of his most mature and nuanced roles, a skilled bachelor who is not cruel or callous as someone who deludes himself into believing that he can somehow feel passion without emotional damage or consequences. Seemingly inspired by the recent work of colleague Bill Murray, Martin underplays his role, creating a classy guy who just wants companionship.

“Shopgirl” is not a conventional romantic comedy, in which the characters are pre-destined to make their wildest dreams come true. Ultimately, though, it’s yet another coming-of-age story of a twentysomething woman who’s not entirely formed. Problem is, the film catches Mirabelle at a particular point and we don’t know how she has evolved into that nave,earnest woman.

Familiar on the surface yet boasting serene surprises throughout, “Shopgirl” is an intermittently engaging look at one particular modern romance. The film might inspire viewers to think differently about older men-younger women relationships, and also older women-younger men bonds.