Shopgirl: Steve Martin and Claire Danes Make an Unlove Story
By Tim Grierson
Oct 24, 2005

Slowly but surely, Steve Martin has transformed his career from "wild and crazy guy" to respected art enthusiast and celebrated writer. Shopgirl demonstrates the benefits of such an evolution.

Shopgirl (Touchstone Pictures)

The logline mentions a May-December romance, but that's merely the starting point for what Steve Martin has in mind in this adaptation of his novella. Martin, you see, lives in Los Angeles, where calamitous age differences in couples are commonplace. So if the bold, fatalistic score doesn't make it clear, Shopgirl is actually about melancholy, about having grandiose ambitions that never quite pan out, about how the young are idealistic but how the older trump them by being stinking rich. Since becoming a Serious Writer, Martin plots his narratives theme first, folding character, setting, and structure into the big ideas, and he's kind enough to make his fictional universe sympathetic and real, no matter the chilly loneliness that cloud the proceedings. Ray Porter, a generally nice guy who too slowly realizes he's simply not nice enough to deserve Claire Danes' shopgirl, is Martin's warning about the emptiness of everything, especially in a city swarming with so much. More than a decade ago, Martin wrote L.A. Story, but this film is a trickier tale of the city he knows so well — sadder, quieter, more recognizable. Jason Schwartzman will probably never be my cup of tea, and there are a few comedic digressions that feel like leftovers from the source material. But how rare is it to make a love story where you know the two people aren't right for each other from minute one and yet be so moved by the experience, still wishing that maybe they could have made it work some how? Here's one — complete with as poignant a farewell as I can remember.

Capote (United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics)

A movie so good that all I want to do is quibble about the few small things that don't work as well. Hoffman is terrific as the famous writer, turning an impression into an attitude, a mindset. But I'm less convinced that he ever truly saw Perry as his doppelganger, as a different direction of where his life could have ended up, and that's a crucial step in a film this subtle and focused. And there are a couple on-the-nose expositional moments that stick out because they're the few incidences when the movie is less than supremely graceful. But this is the year's great indictment of celebrity culture, reality television, artistic aspirations. Because it happens so rarely, I'm compelled to point out that, like Junebug, the movie has a beautifully nonjudgmental look at the Midwest, balancing its Kansas and New York locations with a dispassionate eye, and therefore rendering them both as vividly. And for a story littered with Famous People, you feel an organic world of the cultured and egotistical, not at bunch of actors pretending they're Harper Lee or Richard Avedon. That the director of a quirky little documentary about an odd little New Yorker could make something this subdued, this grand, this measured is perhaps even more impressive than Hoffman's performance.

Good Night, and Good Luck (Warner Independent)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was ultimately more style than anything else, but it suggested that George Clooney could be a real filmmaker, not just another actor with time on his hands. This new one isn't the breakthrough I was hoping for, but it's impressive enough. Sober and all of a piece, this rundown of the Murrow-McCarthy era is a touch too political for its own good — we get the relevance to our own era quickly enough, and so we yearn for the sophisticated pleasures of an adult thriller, which is a little trickier to pull off. But if it's not Quiz Show or The Insider, it does have David Strathairn as Edward Murrow, turning a Moral Hero into a Good Guy, the sort who does the right thing because, well, aren't we put on this earth to be honest, decent human beings? I'm always a little wary when a film so agrees with my politics — is Clooney just preaching to the choir? — but I do appreciate that even the Big Bosses are portrayed as rational blokes who have families to worry about. I don't quite believe that Murrow was ever this saintly, but the movie gets away with it because deep down I'm sure a lot of us wish we had someone like him around now.

Rogue Wave, Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop)

Zach Rogue's band really is one now, as opposed to the solo-artist-with-gusto that powered the impressive debut. None of the distinctive peculiarities have been, though, and I mean that in the best possible sense. The voice still sounds disembodied, the melodies rising to full force but somehow temporary, as if he (and his band) thought of them through happenstance and will shortly move on to something else. But "Publish My Love" is where Rogue Wave command the stage, a unit with a purpose to bend wistful tunes until their living beings. And if several of the acoustic ballads demonstrate Zach's need for alone time, who of us doesn't like a little personal space?

Rosie Thomas, If Songs Could Be Held (Sub Pop)

Every song sounds great at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. They play well in the office, too. The tunes speak of heartbreak with a pleasant melancholy — Rosie Thomas wants sadness to be transcendent, not so bleak that you wanna slash your wrists. The press notes advise that some of these despairing numbers are fictitious — she's not just reading from her diary. Regardless, she's thoroughly assured in this form, with a voice like Alanis Morissette with a less spiteful heart. Lots of boys will roll their eyes at this resilient strand of girl poetry. But men who love women for their ability to be weak and strong at the same time, for their utter willingness to be vulnerable without losing a shred of dignity, for their embrace of pure beauty as a comfort when the world does not work out, will accept Thomas for the delicate flower she is.

Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts)

I'm big enough to admit that I don't get the hip Canadian music scene. Individual groups, I dig — New Pornographers, Arcade Fire. But the Arts & Crafts bands in particular have just about ruined my year and made me question why I bother wasting valuable time taking a chance on newer acts. They all sound too arty, too mannered, too self-involved. They remind me of the people I hate in real life, the kinds who treat every one of their utterances as inherently meaningful because they bothered to come up with it. Broken Social Scene are the leaders of this pack, but they're the best because they do that nifty trick of taking their mannerisms and pretentious and 4,000-or-so band members and make it, and pay attention to this part, fun to listen to. On an album where rhythm and groove speak louder than hooks, you have to be patient, but the songs start piling on, one on top of another. These guys (and girls) will probably end up inspiring better, smarter groups and have a successful reunion tour in 20 years. Things could be worse.

Kate Bush, "King of the Mountain" (from the forthcoming Aerial, Sony)

Her first album in 12 years will thrill people you don't know, but even you can enjoy one sensual, arty song of hers, right? This one kicks off the new record and features The Voice, that strong, beautiful instrument she's been wielding long since she boosted Peter Gabriel's spirits back in the 1980s. But there's feeling, too — spirit, hope, ardor. She is totally out of step with the modern musical world, which, to be honest, is hardly a fault.

Extras (Sundays on HBO)

After airing on BBC, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's follow-up to The Office was rebroadcast on HBO, which switched Episode One and Episode Three. Later, the network put Episode Five in Episode Four's place. What does this tell you? That unlike The Office, this new show has no connective tissue, no through-line. That HBO wanted to lead with the show's best episode, the one with a very funny Kate Winslet. That after that, you're on your own.

Copyright © 1998-2006
View this story online and more at: