' ' Cinema Romantico: Living up to the Page

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Living up to the Page

My fears have been subsided. Oh, “Shopgirl’s” not perfect and the adaptation is not without flaws. But it’s kind of like the local weatherman predicting a havoc-wreaking blizzard that will leave you trapped indoors minus power for weeks, perhaps months, and then you get a pleasant “dusting”.

The film as well as the novella upon which its based concerns Mirabelle Buttersfield, employee of the lonely glove department at Saks Fifth Avenue and sometimes artist. She is courted first by the slovenly Jeremy and then by the wealthy Ray Porter. Each male goes about his courtship in a different way, and thus Mirabelle initially falls for the reluctant charm of Ray Porter. But Jeremy goes about a transformation of character I will allow you to discover and winds up the victor in the relationship game.

A complaint I would have in regards to change from novella to screen would be the importance placed on the victor of this game. The novella was more focused on being a character study of Mirabelle than merely a romance.

There are other flaws in bringing the delightful book to the big screen. The character of Lisa (played well by Bridgett Wilson Sampras, though I wonder how much of a stretch it was for her) gets the shaft which means her “misunderstanding” interlude with Jeremy veers much too much into romantic comedy territory. Plus, Ray Porter’s one-night stand is nothing but a plot device whereas in the book it is more fleshed out.

And I also must mention the voice-over – the pratfall of so many book adaptations. Regardless of what the “screenwriting-gurus-who-don’t-actually-write-screenplays” say, I’m a proponent of voice-over – when it’s done right. But here it is done wrong. Thankfully, there were only (by my count) a total of four voice-overs, and weighed at the beginning and end, but they are of the “my audience is stupid so I’m going to reinforce my point” variety. I don’t believe Steve Martin intended them this way, however. I believe he just wanted to work in some of his favorite monologues from the book. They make the scenes in which they’re included rather awkward, but the film is not ruined by this.

But wait, what am I doing? I’m turning into one of those people – one of those book loyalists dissecting even the most miniscule of differences. I hate that. I’m stopping right now. My sincere apologies.

I apologize because, really, this is a film with some real qualities. Most notably is the performance of Claire Danes as Mirabelle. Let me say this with the hope of not sounding too vague that if Danes does not earn her first Oscar nomination for this role it’s an abomination against all that is good and righteous about cinema. She's what I envisioned while reading the book but, at the same time, she brings her own variations. That's all you can ask. I especially liked her reaction after Ray Porter asks how he would be doing if they were on a dating TV show. She actually stops and thinks about it and then answers. Most actors would just recite the line straight away because it’s what comes next in the script.

Jason Schwartzman is her equal as Jeremy, a good guy (as he so states) who’s trying so hard but doesn’t have clue what to try or how to try it. The scene with him taking several horrendous stabs at a goodnight kiss rang so close to home I almost couldn’t watch. And then there’s Steve Martin – showing how he’s so much more than just a comic actor. On the surface he’s completely reserved, more willing to lavish Mirabelle with gifts and money than to admit to an emotion of any kind. But he plays it in a way showing there’s so much more hidden beneath, even though he – and Mirabelle – know it will never be revealed.

I’m an introverted, shy, awkward person. It’s hard to believe, I know, but I am. The three main characters onscreen – as well as on the page – are introverted, shy, and awkward – albeit in different ways. I think most people are that way, whether they admit it or not. People don’t always say the right thing, or do the right thing, in relationships. One could argue they say and do the wrong things in relationships more than they do the right things. Movies rarely show these things. I mean, they do show the wrong things. But they’re always in the vein of a husband wanting to golf more than spend time with his wife or a wife getting upset at the husband for not noticing her new haircut. We’ve been there, folks, and we’ve done that.

“Shopgirl” goes in the opposite direction. Its presents three real human beings – problems, flaws, blesses, and curses. Late in the movie Ray Porter makes a small joke but it's a joke that should not have been made. He instantly knows after he’s made it that he should not have made it. But he knows a second too late. It's a little thing, but this movie knows the little things are the grandest gestures.

My greatest fear in adapting this for a movie was taking it too far into the romantic comedy realm. It does go there – to an extent – but not all the way. It stays true to the primary theme of the novella. It shows a large part of what drives relationships and human interaction.


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