Trading Places

Anand Tucker's Shopgirl is the adaptation of Steve Martin’s popular but essentially gloomy novella, his first work of fiction, which has more life on paper and in the mind of the reader than it does when played out on the big screen in three dimensions.

Country girl Mirabelle (Claire Danes) is a shy, withdrawn retail assistant, new to LA, who works at the quiet glove counter of a big department store, but spends her days mostly staring off into space, dreaming of love and escape. One evening, while washing her smalls in one of those Laundromats beloved of screenwriters, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a random, completely uninhibited and rather scruffy wannabe musician and amplifier salesman. They go on an awkward date, gingerly feeling one another out (rather than up) but there is little spark between them. However, Mirabelle is just lonely enough to call him again, and they start a clumsy, uncomfortable physical relationship. So far, so awkward.
Enter the other side to the potential love triangle, the wealthy middle-aged businessman Ray Porter (Martin himself, who looks like he's had some sandblasting done to his face, especially around the eyes). Mirabelle and Ray start to see each other, and before too long their relationship escalates into something more substantial and rewarding than Jeremy had to offer. But for all his impoverished stains and filthy hair, Jeremy was a young man with a heart, which might be worn on his sleeve, but is undeniably still beating. Ray, for all his money and the freedom it brings, is shallow, self-obsessed and faintly creepy, something Mirabelle gradually comes to realise.

Shopgirl has tremendous potential, being a fragile and undeniably heartfelt film about lonely and isolated individuals struggling to find purchase in an oblivious and uncaring LA. But realising a wholly compelling feature film from Martin’s slight, 120 page book is a task that proves beyond director Tucker (Hilary & Jackie). What starts out as a quirky, bittersweet romance becomes an almost static minimalist tapestry, with too little of the comedy that Schwartzman is keen to provide left to lighten the mood. Most disappointing is the statue-like central performance from Daines, which has plenty of heart and wrinkle-browed yearning but is overly controlled and precise. Most of the time it feels like she is just sitting there.
Tucker does employ his keen visual sense on occasion to break the mood with some assured and delicate photography, but the film’s determined anti-romantic point of view never really admits us and is altogether far too downbeat and mopey to make any real connection. It’s not much of a watch, but when compared to Martin’s other recent offering, Cheaper By The Dozen 2, it’s a fucking masterpiece. Modern love isn’t the only thing that’s not funny anymore.

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