"Shopgirl" is like "Pygmalion" for the upper-middle-brow business class flier. Which isn't to say it's bad. On the contrary, it's smart, spare, elegant and understated. Especially the sex scenes, in which Claire Danes poses like an Ingres Odalisque in an extra languid mood. The movie positively blushes with class, taste and high-mindedness, and anyone thinking of seeing it just for the chance to see Danes naked will be sorely disappointed. She appears strictly in the nude.
Directed by Anand Tucker ("Hilary and Jackie") from a screenplay adapted by Steve Martin from his novella (he also produced), "Shopgirl" is a wistful account of the yearlong love affair between a 50-year-old millionaire and a lonely, debt-saddled service sector serf in her 20s. It stars Danes, Martin and Jason Schwartzman, respectively, as the girl in the window, her benefactor-with-benefits and a grotty fellow waif whom success, improved grooming and prolonged exposure to self-help literature eventually transform into a suitor the millionaire-narrator can feel good about handing her off to.
Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes) is stranded at Saks Fifth Avenue, selling evening gloves nobody wants from a remote counter off the coast of the couture department, when a browsing computer tycoon sees something he likes. Ray Porter (Martin) buys a pair of gloves, finagles Mirabelle's name from management and has the accessories delivered to her shabby Silver Lake apartment, along with a note inviting her to dinner.
Having endured a few dates with a socially inept amp salesman and font designer named Jeremy (Schwartzman), whose idea of a date consists of taking her to Universal CityWalk and borrowing money, Mirabelle agrees to go out with Ray — but not before Martin has assured us in voice-over that what this girl needs is "an omniscient voice to illuminate her, to tell the world this one has value."
This one, that is, as opposed to that one — as in Mirabelle's gold-digging co-worker, Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), whose fanged bimbonics further secure Mirabelle's place among the ranks of the cute, deserving poor. Lisa serves another important function: She makes Ray's interest in Mirabelle look more curatorial than acquisitive. His taste in girls (like his taste in clothes, art, cars, food, wine, etc.) is exquisite. He's no rank consumer. He's a connoisseur.
Okey-dokey. But then who, exactly, is calling her a "shopgirl"? (Certainly not Saks; they understand the magical morale-boosting properties of "sales associate.") Well, that would be her omniscient lover. From the get-go, Ray and Mirabelle's relationship is based on a power dynamic roughly analogous to the one in "Bambi Meets Godzilla," the Merchant-Ivory version. A self-described "terrible judge of character," Mirabelle concludes on their first date that Ray is not dangerous, and from that point forward nothing he does can change her mind — not even the rehearsed morning-after speech he delivers announcing that he would like to keep seeing her, but — everybody now — he's not looking for a relationship at the moment.
As Mirabelle falls in love, Ray falls into a creepy in loco parentis role, spoiling her with little luxuries that far exceed her means (like new dresses), and quickly moving on to grand gestures of life-changing largesse. Ray's beneficence, combined with an oddly fusty Victorian tone imported from the book, give "Shopgirl" an almost Dickensian feel — like "Oliver Twist" for dirty old men. For a movie predicated on themes of power and exploitation, in other words, it does a pretty nimble dance around the elephant in the room — even as the elephant slowly lowers its haunches, threatening to pulverize every carefully constructed rationalization and sophisticated attitude in sight.
This, naturally, is the most interesting thing about the movie, and really a very good reason to see it. It's hard to think of another film this year as likely to inspire debate, or even smashed crockery. It's not that the movie is blind to its characters' faults — it's not. It's just honest up to a point. Mirabelle awkwardly calls Ray "mister," like a kid in a joke about a stranger with candy, but never dares call him "sweetheart." And Ray's inability to love Mirabelle is copped to early and often. But "Shopgirl" never removes its gloves.
For an artist (she draws), Mirabelle is strangely lacking in insight. Never once does she rebel against Ray's remove, never once does she even wonder whether their relationship is purely transactional. She only submits — and so graciously. She's not dumb, though. And there are hints that the relationship is taking its toll. But the depression that knocks her off her feet in the middle of the movie (she stops taking her medication because she's happy) is treated like a purely chemical pathology. Ray has a shrink to talk to; when Mirabelle crashes he takes her to the doctor and gets her back on her meds.
And it's not just Mirabelle who doesn't get a turn illuminating Ray. Nobody else — not his awful, viperish ex (Rebecca Pidgeon), not his shrink, not even Jeremy — get a single word in on the subject. There's just that omniscient voice admitting that the relationship was, er, fundamentally problematic and, um, ultimately bittersweet, but, as Ray concludes in parting thoughts, "that's life."
That's life? That's it? OK, it stands to reason that director Tucker didn't push things further. Actually, considering the circumstances, Tucker does exceedingly well. Shifting the movie's point of view to Danes helps quite a bit. Danes can fill a scene with one wounded glance, and her body language alone conveys a richness of character that makes an otherwise not very expressive character mesmerizing. She also does something interesting with Mirabelle's passivity— she plays it as quasi-mute, awestruck intimidation that speaks volumes.
For some reason, it made me recall Hans Weingartner's recent, excellent "The Edukators," in which a waitress roughly Mirabelle's age becomes indentured to a man roughly Ray's age after she crashes her uninsured Volkswagen into his Mercedes (of which he, like Ray, has several), and he makes her buy him a new one. When the waitress sees just how huge the discrepancy between his effect on her life and her effect on his, she trashes his house. In "Shopgirl," she leaves without a fuss.
For all of its sensitivity and intelligence, and its finely observed details ("Shopgirl" is nothing if not hawk-eyed about the accouterments of social rank), the movie is oblivious to the pleasures of life off the status grid. Rather than let the warm, eccentric, goofy Jeremy just wise up to Mirabelle's demure charms, it nudges him subtly into Ray's camp. It's one thing when Jeremy sends Mirabelle a rose, another when he shows up in a shining new Toyota and tells her he'll protect her. She's been protected enough.
MPAA rating: R for some sexual content and brief language
Times guidelines: Contains nudity
Touchstone Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment present an Ashok Amritaj production. Directed by Anand Tucker. Screenplay by Steve Martin. Based on his novella.