Saturday, November 05, 2005

My Secret Diary, by Steve Martin

“Shopgirl” could have been two movies — the kind of light-hearted comic romance as you’d expect from Steve Martin, or the kind of angsty drama, as you’d expect from Claire Danes. It’s neither. Instead, “Shopgirl” attempts to tread down the line separating these two possible outcomes, creating a noticeably bifurcated movie that still manages to be entertaining enough that you don’t regret paying to see it.

It’s weird, really, the way the movie yo-yos back and forth. It has a scene of Jason Schwartzman being all goofball and Jimmy Fallon-like — and please, Jason, cut your hair — then goes straight into another of Danes weeping. It would feel forced if Schwartzman wasn’t such a good goofball and Danes wasn’t such a good weeper, so I guess I have to credit the actors with holding the movie together. Steve Martin hold up well too, even when he’s delivering some clunker lines — ones, admittedly, that he wrote himself. In this one scene, he and Danes’ character are having dinner and he asks to see her wristwatch. Then he coils his old man fingers around her naked wrist — no slashing scars, I was happy to see — and tells her “I’m your watch now.”

The fuck?

But he wrote it and he apparently understands the genuine sentiment he was trying to express in that terrible, terrible line, so it ends up sounding not as bad as it would if it came from, say, Bill Murray.

Why Bill Murray, you ask?

I can’t help but feel like this movie would have never been made if it hadn’t been for “Lost in Translation.” It’s easy to draw the parallels. Danes — an actress who falls into the category of “thinking man’s hottie,” like Scarlett Johansson — is lonely and unfulfilled until she meets this wealthy older guy — Martin, a comic colleague of Murray’s. They romance with some difficulty. Twirling around in the background are Schwartzman, a hipster doofus mildly reminiscent of Giovanni Ribisi in “Translation” and a blonde, dippy sexpot — Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, more contained than Anna Faris in “Translation” and a little less affable. (Wilson-Sampras, once the muse of middle school boners nation-wide as Veronica Vaughn, has put on a lot of weight. And her gumminess is making her look more and more like Missi Pyle. I’d guess Pete Sampras should run her around the court a little more.) Even the look of “Shopgirl” owes a lot to “Lost in Translation.” There’s a pronounced emptiness in every shot. The color seems a little drained, but when it’s there it’s especially bright — Danes’ lips or the knowingly funky sea green her character has painted her apartment.

Add to that the movie’s tendency to introduce plot points that quickly vanish — Danes stops taking anti-depressants, freaks, goes to the doctor off-screen, then never mentions it again — and you have a movie that has just enough problems to prevent it from being a genuinely good movie.

I like Steve Martin a lot, but I’d rather see him being funny than being old and heart-breaking and narrating it all as if Martin himself — not his character, but the actor — were reminding you “Hey! I wrote this!” I especially think he should get a second opinion before naming his characters. The film’s lead, the titular shopgirl, is named Mirabelle Buttersfield, which is a mouthful. Of vomit. And butter. Really, did he think Bianca Steeplechase and Fernanda Grunnigle-Goatsworth were taken?

Perhaps the one point of this movie that I find most interesting is wondering how much of it is autobiographical. Steve Martin has written before, notably the film “Bowfinger” with Eddie Murphy. I liked this movie, too, despite its flaws. And I remember reading that Heather Graham’s character in the movie — an up-and-coming actress who eventually takes up with a famous lesbian to further her career — is based on Anne Heche, with whom Martin had a fling years ago. He’s dated other younger women as well — Bernadette Peters, Helena Bonham Carter — and I’d like to think that part of his strong performance came from this story being based on something that actually happened to him. In this uneven movie, there’s a spark in his eye that made me feel like he really believed in the story and the characters. And if “Shopgirl” came from some private emotion that he decided to vent through art, then I think I like it even more.

[ elsa shivers lives ]

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