Steve Martin’s wry, poignant prose was the only substantial element of his 2001 novella Shopgirl, an otherwise anorexic-thin tale of Los Angeles ennui whose understated climate of longing and discontent helped to compensate for its stereotypical characterizations and lethargic narrative leanness. Anand Tucker’s cinematic adaptation of Martin’s book is not only penned by the author but features him in the role of Ray Porter, the charismatic fatcat who forms one third of Shopgirl’s triangular romance, though his involvement does little to stem the tide of second-rate Lost in Translation preciousness emanating from this misbegotten portrait of modern alienation.
With the exception of a few opening and closing instances, Martin’s script forgoes narration as a means of transferring his acutely evocative language to the screen, a decision at once prudent (given the ungainliness of these brief voiceovers) and disastrous, as it shifts the descriptive burden onto Anand’s self-consciously delicate imagery. Packed with glossy symmetrical compositions in which every camera (or human) movement is measured and refined, and with Barrington Pheloung’s rising-and-falling orchestral score immersing the (non)action in saccharinity, the film assumes a romantic aesthetic best described as “tasteful sterility,” exhibiting the formal, remote beauty of Ray’s antiseptic house in the hills and the modern art gallery where titular Saks Fifth Avenue shopgirl (and aspiring artist) Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) eventually finds herself. If such a studied visual approach largely drains the story of any vestiges of fiery ardor, however, it nonetheless sharply mirrors the bland, one-dimensional vacuity of its characters, each one a “type” lacking those essential attributes—bits of personal baggage, likes and dislikes, habits, opinions, etc.—that define flesh-and-blood people.
A Vermont native set adrift amid vast, disconnected L.A. and its shallow, repugnant denizens (such as Bridgette Wilson-Sampras’s predatory make-up counter skank Lisa), depressive twentysomething Mirabelle is a wayward wallflower whose improbable relationships with doting but non-committal middle-aged Ray and immature slacker-turned-smooth operator Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) reflect a yearning for some measure of human connection that might validate the value of her lonely, stuck-in-neutral life. With nary a definable trait among the tormented trio (save for each one’s sole, defining lovelorn condition), it’s left to Anand’s performers to craft something out of nothing, a task the stolid Martin and blank Danes are woefully incapable of achieving but which Schwartzman nearly pulls off, bringing a bouncy, anxious, scene-stealing 10-year-old-kid narcissism to his callous goofball. Ultimately, though, even Jeremy’s quicksilver flashes of identifiable personality do little more than call attention to Shopgirl’s pervasive emotional void, just as the film’s pointlessly recurring close-ups of feet primarily serve to remind one that Anand is no Luis Buñuel.