The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Friday, April 28, 2006


Steve Martin wrote an introspective fictional novella called Shopgirl (published in 2000) about relationship difficulties. I didn’t read the book, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the characters or the story when I saw this film. I really had no idea what it was about.

Claire Danes plays the shopgirl of the title. Mirabelle works in an under-visited department of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, selling overpriced gloves to rich people. A young Vermont transplant trying to make it in exotic Los Angeles, her personal life is depressing and lonely.

As things develop, two men come into her life. One is a complete goofball slacker with barely a dime to his name and little idea of the niceties of social conventions. Mirabelle takes a chance on Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) because he is her age, he seems interested, and honestly, she’s desperate. But it is a dissatisfying hookup in almost every possible way.

The other man is Steve Martin playing Ray -- a wealthy, cultured, distinguished businessman with oodles of money. He is everything she was hoping for. Except for his reluctance to develop closeness and openness with her. He can’t confess any emotional ties to Mirabelle and views their relationship as a temporary convenience.

[A brief pause here for a personal note to my past girlfriends who might be reading… Yes, I get it.]

All three characters learn and grow in their understanding of each other and themselves through the events of the film.

This isn’t a standard Hollywood romantic comedy and it isn’t a standard Hollywood romantic tearjerker drama. Some parts are funny, some are sad, some are fairly boring, and much is bittersweet in the way that imperfect relationships can be.

The movie has many things going for it. The three main actors truly inhabit their parts. I never thought of them as acting. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as Jeremy and adds much needed comic relief and lightness to every scene he is in. He exudes energy and life. Martin is quiet and reserved and dignified as Ray. Danes shows the uncertainty, hopefulness, and emotional vulnerability of a 24-year old naïf on her own in LA.

The score is by Barrington Pheloung, whom I had never heard of. I looked him up and he has scored some 45 movies, so he’s no newcomer. Played by the London Metropolitan Orchestra, it has elements of classical symphonic, chamber music, and that plinky-plinky stuff from “American Beauty.” I really liked it and felt it helped underscore and define the unspoken aspects of the characters’ interrelations.

The art direction, camera direction, lighting, and photography are topnotch and subtly effective and evocative. Mirabelle draws charcoal sketches and we often see her shading in the black edges of her paper subjects. Much of the film is shot this way, with centrally lit characters in a frame edging gradually to black on the edges. It is a style reminiscent of the Dutch Masters school of art, where the central character is lit within a dark surround. There are a few subtle effects shots (I loved the flower petals blowing around Mirabelle at the gallery parking lot) and only one short trick shot that pulls you out of the story.

The movie opens and ends with Steve Martin reading a voiceover narrative as if he is reading the opening and closing pages of his book. And for all I know, he is. The third-party omniscient exposition of the characters’ feelings clashes terribly with the rest of the film, where they communicate with the audience through their expressiveness in natural dialog and emotive abilities. I think the film would be better with the voiceover removed (hey, if they did it to “Blade Runner” they can do it to this!)

Shopgirl isn’t a perfect movie. There are some slow bits that could have been tightened up. The Steve Martin character seemed a little creepy and menacing to me in early scenes where he should have been more likable and appealing to Mirabelle. But I liked the intelligence and wistfulness of the script, I loved the technical artistry of the movie, and I admired the acting. Recommended.

Parents note: I don’t recall any swearing. There is no violence. There is suggested sexuality, but nothing graphic. Nudity is confined to one female backside shot. Kids will be bored silly by this, but they can safely be playing in the same room.


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