Steve Martin loves Los Angeles like Woody Allen loves New York. They make their respective cities look like the most marvelous places on earth (at least, for would-be melancholic sophisticates like myself).
The Los Angeles of Shopgirl, the movie, is lustrous and hyper-true and, yes, melancholic. It is beautiful, distilled down to its essence. It is a Los Angeles I know well, and a Los Angeles I have inhabited only in my mind, the glittery carpet of interlinked grids you see from way, way up on Mulholland Drive that usually disappears as soon as you hit the traffic on Sunset. It's the Los Angeles that dreamers fall in love with, and Steve Martin is a dreamer.
The story, slim and fable-like, unfolds at a dream-like pace: a little slow, with all the edges carved off and replaced with perfectly chosen details set perfectly in frame, like little jewels. Mirabelle, the shopgirl of the title, and her perfect retro pendant. Ray, her lover/benefactor, placing a surprisingly knotty hand against the small of her back as they exit a restaurant. Jeremy, the scruffy, seedling lover who isn't quite ready until the last reel, sunlight glinting off his white suit onto his oversized shades and back onto his white suit as he finally reveals his ready-ness.
For most of the film, I sat back in my newly reupholstered movie cradle and bathed in sense of place, my favorite movie pr0n. But by the end, when Ray and Mirabelle reunite at an art show of Mirabelle's and we see that she's broken through to the other side but he still has miles to go, my heart broke, not at all a reaction I had as I finished the little novella that fueled this.
I think this is partly because, even though he wrote the screenplay, too, Martin couldn't overwrite the film. There are real human beings inhabiting these characters, and damn, they're good. Claire Danes fills in all of Mirabelle's blanks with deeply felt, completely restrained emotion. Jason Schwartzman is Oscarâ„¢-fabulous, so riotously, painfully human, you find yourself cheering him on even when he makes staggeringly wrong dude moves. And Steve Martin? Well, maybe you can catch him acting here and there, but his bravery points override any issue I have with that. He is by far the saddest character in the film: as the writer, he knows it; as the actor, he knows it a little more often than I'd like. Compare that with Bill Murray's turn as the impassive superstar in Lost In Translation (go on, everybody else is) and you'll see what I mean. Say what you want about Bill Murray's acting style (I like it, for the most part), he never, ever winks at what's happening.
My friend, Michael Blowhard, is always bemoaning the lack of grown-up movies and predicting doom for the movies in general as a result. Here's a film where 2/3 of the cast is under 30 (plus a slightly-older, perfectly-cast Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as a predatory blonde), and it is as grown-up as they come.
Doom forestalled for one more season...