Like some heroine from a 1950s melodrama, Mirabelle (Claire Danes) sells the strangely anachronistic accessory of long evening gloves at the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. She is the human equivalent of an elevator button: utilitarian and invisible until she is needed.
Holly Golightly without the glamour, Mirabelle is a contemporary spinster in vintage dresses, and part of a long tradition of movie career gals a la Bridget Jones whose salvation lies in the men who promise to whisk them away from their pitiful purgatory of sexual frustration and kitty-cuddling loneliness.
When it's not evoking some crummy chick-lit rescue fantasy, Shopgirl suggests a Hollywood answer to the soft-brained, warm and fuzzy indie fluff Me and You and Everyone We Know about a similarly restless singleton.
But what the mopey, exceptionally shallow Shopgirl most often suggests is the sleazy politics of a Pretty Woman directed at the New Yorker crowd.
Mirabelle is so empty, she barely has an identity of her own and instead relies on the voice-over narration provided on her behalf by Steve Martin, who narrates her fairy princess progress from shopgirl to kept woman.
It is only with the entry of two men -- first the squirrely font designer Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and then the "suave" older millionaire Ray Porter (Martin) -- that Mirabelle's life begins to have meaning. In the estimation of films like Shopgirl, a woman on her own exists solely for the purpose of getting a romance cooking.
Mirabelle meets Jeremy in a Laundromat but, as that venue might suggest, their love affair is on the cheapo side. In lieu of flowers, Jeremy's idea of courtship is showing up for a date clutching a bag of greasy fries. He's a slacker so lazy that he wants to improvise a sandwich bag as a contraceptive when he forgets his condom.
Jeremy is a sublime loser, and the only escape valve from the increasingly oxygen-deprived pretense of this upwardly mobile comedy of manners. To Schwartzman's credit, Jeremy is a wholly believable representative of today's toddler-esque, me-me-me twentysomething man-child who would, at least initially, make Mirabelle want to flee for the debonair and daddy-substitute arms of Ray.
In a scenario that would be grounds for a restraining order if performed by a janitor or plumber -- but is somehow understood as "charming" because of his extreme wealth -- the much older Ray (Martin is 60, Danes 26) spies Mirabelle hawking her gloves at Saks and decides to pluck this glum daisy from her retail cesspool. He sends her a pair of gloves and invites her to dinner.
By the end of the film, it appears Ray just wants the easy, no-frills lay Mirabelle offers and their affair quickly devolves into a cliché-burdened scenario of a needy woman trying to snare a gun-shy Mr. Big with "commitment issues."
Ray comes from a monied, therapeutic L.A. where admitting to being a cad and a creep is a form of enlightenment but not enough to warrant change. In this film based his 130-page novella, Martin is essentially playing a thinly disguised version of himself, a Richard Gere-style smoothy who introduces a humble shopgirl to the "high life" of his sterile bachelor pad. The closest we get to ennui from Ray are the moments when he gazes pensively out the window of his private jet with the expression of a man who's just found out the restaurant where he's ordered dinner is out of salmon. Such is the unbearable agony of the jet set.
But the most ridiculous folly of all is Martin's masturbatory fantasy of an old man with a younger girl masquerading as insightful, tender romance. Shopgirl is like a comic book hidden behind Anna Karenina, a pretense of seriousness used to get the girl.
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