Lost in Interpretation

Washington City Paper | October 27, 2005
Shopgirl, based on the novella by Steve Martin, will inevitably be viewed as Martin’s Lost in Translation. It’s a story about disconnected people tentatively coming together. It’s quiet and understated. And the majority of its plot is focused on the relationship between a 20-ish woman and a middle-aged man.

Both erstwhile comics went serious for their roles, but Martin, it turns out, is no Bill Murray. His 50-year-old Ray Porter pursues Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a clerk in charge of the dress-glove department at Saks Fifth Avenue, for purely sexual reasons. And though Ray’s wooing, aided by his wealth, is relatively tasteful and restrained—he sends Mirabelle the long velvet gloves he bought from her, then invites her to dinner at a posh restaurant—the look in his eyes often is not. Martin’s white-haired Ray may present himself as high-class and even tender, but there are moments when he’s with the wide-eyed Mirabelle that may make your skin crawl. The way he wraps two fingers around her wrist on their second date, for example, and creepily purrs, “I’m your watch now.” Or his hungry, heavy-lidded ogle the first time he sees her naked on his bed.

Furthermore, Ray’s personality can be described in one word: rich. Martin thoroughly tamps down his charm here, surpassing Murray’s quiet-but-wry hangdog in Lost to match, well, Murray’s quiet-and-charisma-free bore in Broken Flowers. Mirabelle’s initial curiosity about Ray isn’t difficult to believe; the loner wage slave/artist is still in the dregs of postcollegiate poverty. Not to mention that her male peers aren’t exactly the shining-armored type: Her only other suitor is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an amplifier-stenciler who’s shaggy, slovenly, and naively ill-mannered, the kind of guy who doesn’t think to clean off his passenger seat before he picks her up and asks to borrow two bucks when they agree to go Dutch on a movie.

At least Jeremy brings some life to the film, though. Schwartzman’s slacker is the most animated character here, well-meaning and comically unaware of his shortcomings or even of basic bedroom protocol. (When he mistakenly tells Mirabelle that he has a condom—“Oh shit, it’s a mint”—he offers to use a baggie instead.) Schwartzman’s little physical touches, from the funny way Jeremy reacts when the music changes in his headphones to his “Boop boop” after pretending to set the alarm on his car, enable the character’s potential to poke through all the muck.

Danes is elegant and pensive as Mirabelle, wavering still between the adolescent (her bored slouches against the glove counter) and the adult (her comportment with Ray). But the character’s translation to the screen suffers slightly, with lots of wordless shots of her face having to fill in for the flood of inner thoughts present in the book. Danes does an impressive job, though, with her subtly changing expressions, whether smiling to herself the day after her first date with Ray or attempting to appear worldly and unhurt whenever Ray reminds her that their relationship isn’t exclusive.

And even the ick factor of the May-December coupling wears off eventually, though Mirabelle and Ray’s romance still feels kind of forced and shellacked, thanks in no small part to Barrington Pheloung’s stuffy and overbearing string score. Ray ends up being more than a one-dimensional cad, and he occasionally treats Mirabelle with genuine affection, though his character still comes off as a fantasy for any woman who refuses to accept the He’s Just Not That Into You outlook: He says he doesn’t want to commit, think the hopeful, but he’s just scared and really does love me!

By the time this spare story is wrapped up, Mirabelle’s been put through the wringer, lessons have been learned, and everything seems to have worked out the way it was meant to. Martin’s closing narration—which feels a little weird, given that its omniscient viewpoint shares a voice with his character—could be viewed as a cop-out, though it’s hard to argue with: The way the relationships have unfolded can’t really be justified—“except, well, it was life.”

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