Steve Martin’s Shopgirl is not what you would call an epic film, more something along the lines of a little treasure.
Its one of those small films where everything is done just right. My one small hesitation would be the casting of Jason Schwarzman but that probably is more just a quirk of mine than any real criticism. Just don’t cotton to the fellow though I must say that there were a couple of scenes of his in this that were just brilliant. But Steve Martin and Claire Danes were great.
Martin has never been quite as low key and focussed and Danes, well, has she ever been bad ever since she started off in My So Called Life? She has matured into an elegant but highly expressive presence.
Its a smart relationship film. Danes plays Mirabelle Butterworth in New York but fresh out of Vermont. She starts up an odd and awkward sort of bond with Jeremy (Schwarzman) who intrigues her when they meet at the local laundromat. He ends up falling for her, and she kind of likes him, but fate has it that he ends up becoming a roadie for Red House Painters and being gone for months. In the meanwhile Ray Porter (Martin) an older well off man woos her at Saks where she works (hence the title). To take it down to essentials, she ends up with Porter for a while with Jeremy popping up every now and then, and the ending is for those who see the film for themselves.
Apart from the performances and great script (adapted by Martin from his own novella) this is beautiful film; color coded in a number of ways but just overall beautiful to look at.
How the film stands out though is that it is that rarest of creatures, the realistic and wise relationship film. All too often these films follow a set of expectations, using a clutch of cliched characters and scenes, and the moral lessons are on the level of hallmark cards. This is a wonderfully balanced film with a lightness of touch but a depth of worldliness that makes you think as well as feel.
Martin has also managed to portray a older-younger relationship with much more grace than Woody Allen has. Though Manhattan is one of my favourite films of all time, the scenes between Allen and Mariel Hemingway make me cringe though they are miles above the inanity of his Whatever Works with Larry David having it off with Evan Rachel Wood. But Martin and Danes work. And it really is not about age differences at all but about two people meeting. The differences are not ignored, they simply cease to be the focal point.
The one thing that clinched this film for me though was the voiceover. I’ve always been a sucker for the narrative voiceover (possibly because it then resembles reading to me) and this style which was Porter speaking was reminiscent of the way that Truffaut used it, and that is in the way of making sure you get the story, that you see what it is really all about. This is not in the sense that the filmmaker was not competent enough just to show it but this was a film to some degrees about what people are thinking to themselves and this was a nice way to do it as well as to add that narrative feel of a story being told.