Something in 'Shopgirl' adaptation gets lost in the translation

by Matt Hill | 11/14/05 6:00am

In Anand Tucker's "Shopgirl," Los Angeles is just another lonely, rain-swept city, illuminated by neon lights and TV-projector screens, that lives and breathes with the sounds of car horns and the muffled drone of highway traffic. It's a city we see predominantly at night, when those who have a real home, in every sense of the word, return to those homes, and when those who don't keep looking. But most of all, in "Shopgirl," Los Angeles is a place of connections made and unmade, wanted and unwanted and -- to borrow from the film's imagery -- of May-December romances that blossom like roses and fall like dogwood leaves.

In a sense, we've seen a lot of this before: the setting was Tokyo, and the movie was Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." Scarlett Johansson was our girl at the window, looking out at the world of adulthood with the fear and trepidation that comes with inexperience, while Bill Murray memorably captured a midlife crisis, looking back on his golden years with the sad wisdom of a wizened sage. We were introduced to Johannson's vulnerability in the film's now-famous first shot -- a rather odd angle on her butt through mosquito-screen panties -- and we grew to understand her almost tangible feeling of dislocation as though we were feeling it ourselves.

That film was praised mostly for its subtlety, with its remarkably unshowy performances by the leads and its quiet reflection on the loneliness of geographical and emotional displacement.

"Shopgirl" seems to have the same aims, but its technique slightly overcooks its theme. Claire Danes is admittedly great as the twenty-something Mirabelle, a struggling artist and lost-looking desk clerk who sells evening gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue. Steve Martin is gracefully unobtrusive as Ray Parker, a divorced computer tycoon and middle-aged lothario looking to give dating another shot. But their simple, understated performances come dangerously close to being smothered like cake under too much frosting.

There are a number of things that just seem overdone. For instance, if you close your eyes at any point during the movie, the score by Barrington Pheloung will make you think you're switching channels between a heartwarming Lifetime special and a "Titanic"-esque tearjerker. Sure, Martin has called his story "Jane Austen for the twenty-first century," but Austen always had a knack for poking fun at her characters while writing passionately about their problems.

What's more, the film is bookended by a sappy voiceover narration done by Martin, and strangely, it's unclear exactly who is speaking. Is it Martin the man? Is it Martin the novella author/screenwriter? Or is it Ray Parker, looking back at his yearlong, misguided romance with a strange, newfound omniscience and insight?

Melodrama is not always a bad thing, of course. Without it we wouldn't have our Greek tragedies, a good portion of our biggest Oscar winners or, well, "The O.C." Sidney Lumet, who just visited Dartmouth to receive our film award, once said that what separates melodrama from drama is that in the former, the story defines the characters, while in the latter, the characters define the story. Screenwriter Martin and director Tucker are certainly going for drama here, but their characters are too thin; their story, accordingly, feels hollow.

Case in point: besides Mirabelle and Ray, there's really only Jason Schwartzman's character, Jeremy, an unshaven artist whose idea of dating involves borrowing money and watching lines at the movie theater file in and out. He's intended to be the comic relief of the movie, at least initially, and while his presence sometimes marks a refreshing shift from the predominantly melancholy tone of the film, on a basic level he's really just unlikable. There's also Mirabelle's coworker, Lisa Cramer (Bridgette Wilson, much filled out from her "Billy Madison" days), a conniving and manipulative perfume seller who makes for an amusing pseudo-villain. However, like Anna Faris in "Lost in Translation," she just seems out of place. It's clear that "Shopgirl" wasn't adapted from a novel but a novella -- it actually feels more like a short story you'd read in the New Yorker -- because ultimately, the characters feel like they're stretched too thin, and hence so does the story.

I've always shirked the notion of "chick flicks" and "guy movies." Sure, maybe we look for different things in movies. Guys could walk into "Shopgirl" looking forward to Claire Danes' nude scene, even if it's only from behind and more like an Ingres Odalisque than a Playboy centerfold, while girls weary of sketchy pong partners and brown-out hookups may find comfort in Ray's old-fashioned courtship of the lonely Mirabelle. But I think we all go to the movies to make a connection--to become entangled, for two hours at least, in someone else's world. And as Mirabelle ultimately discovers about Ray, sometimes that connection just can't be made. Relationships, as the film's poster says, don't always fit like a glove, and neither do movies. "Shopgirl" wasn't my thing. But hey, you never know -- it could be yours.

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