Intimacy is always a tricky subject for a film; there are a million and one representations of romantic and sexual connection committed to film that get everything all wrong. So, on that rare occasion when a movie gets it right, when the stars align and you leave the theater feeling like you have just seen something of the truth about human connection, there is a tendency to overlook a film’s flaws in order to remember and honor those seemingly real emotions. In a few, all too rare cases, a film strikes such a perfect harmonic balance between romance, melancholy and comedy that the movie ends up being a personal touchstone, the epitome of cinematic romance. The romantic comedy touches us in very private ways because it allows us to imagine our ideal selves operating in extraordinarily vulnerable circumstances; we see the beautiful people and the messy interactions that make up our on-screen dreams and strive to recognize them in our everyday lives. Is my boyfriend the type to cover the bed in roses? Does my wife understand me when I tell her I love her? There may be no more personal relationship between a film and an individual than that between romantic comedy and the personal, romantic ideal. To put it another way; If you want to know the depth and texture of my romantic dreams (although I am not sure why you would), you need simply watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to understand the way I imagine my inner-romantic to function.
But when things go wrong, when a film runs afoul of the personal code of desire, it can destroy an otherwise perfectly enjoyable movie-going experience. Just the slightest tilt off-kilter, an unbelievable plot twist or the condescension to an otherwise trusty romantic archetype, will banish the romantic comedy into the realm of melodrama (which, admittedly, can have it own campy delights) or, worse, farce. Hollywood has always presented itself as the manufacturer of America’s dream images, the place (along with its cousin on Madison Ave.) where the average man can turn to escape the mundane and find the sublime. Of course, as Hollywood focuses more and more tightly on the pandering art of making money and turns away from an actual understanding of its audience, no film genre has suffered more acutely than the romantic comedy. A look across the past few years shows no shortage of romantic misfires, which begs the question: Who do they think we are? Of course, a look at TV and popular music show similar trends; it’s all humiliation and fucking. Is the American romantic ideal to be found in the sexual obsessions of teenagers, the class aspirations of Jennifer Lopez, the gross-out comedies of the Farrelly Brothers or the never-ending stream of classic British novel adaptations? Where are Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, arguably the faces of romantic comedy for this generation? Where is the glamour? Where is the love?
It should come as no surprise, then, that the loss of the romantic ideal and the quest for love in the lives of everyday people is the concern of the best romantic comedy in quite some time, Anand Tucker’s screen adaptation of Steve Martin’s novel, Shopgirl. The story of the film is elegantly simple; Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Daines), is a lonely girl from Vermont living in Los Angeles who works as a salesgirl at the Saks Fifth Avenue glove counter. On a visit to the local Laundromat, she meets the slacker cum amplifier stencilist Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who asks her on what turns out to be a rather strange date. As Mirabelle confronts her own feelings about Jeremy, she meets the wealthy Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a man carrying the same emotional baggage his name implies. Mirabelle dumps Jeremy in order to explore Ray’s more refined attentions, and things slowly grow more and more confused for everyone. What separates this story from the typical romantic comedy is that Shopgirl represents a return to the serious consideration of emotional compatibility and availability in the context of sex and romance. Steve Martin may be best known for his early work as a comic actor in films like The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains, but it is Roxanne, his adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac that truly set the tone for his best screenwriting. Martin, unlike most of his contemporaries in comedy, refuses to go for the cheap laugh or for the gross-out, instead infusing his characters with the dignity required to deal with the ramifications of the comic and tragic in their lives.
I'm Waitin' For My Man: Claire Daines as Mirabelle Buttersfield in Anand Tucker's Shopgirl
Of course, if dignity alone were the soul of romance, Shopgirl would be one big bore, and happily, there is a great deal of comic relief on display amongst the heartache, mostly assigned to Jason Schwartzman, who plays Jeremy’s drippy struggles with irresponsibility and desire for every ounce of their potential. But Jeremy’s soul searching is merely an endpoint for the central conflict in the film’s love triangle; the arms length intimacy that is experienced by Mirabelle and Ray. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I experienced an instant recognition of something essentially male in Martin’s portrayal of Ray and this character’s refusal to give himself over fully to his relationship with Mirabelle. Even more recognizable (and equally male) is the film’s refusal to psychoanalyze Ray’s distance, to ascribe it as a mid-life crisis to be solved by his affair with a younger woman, or to ever even articulate his attraction to the obviously less worldly Mirabelle. Instead, there is a single discussion about the status of the love affair, and a quick representation of the ‘he said/she said’ misunderstanding it inspires, which lays out once and for all the doomed status of this relationship. The wisdom to avoid analytical trappings puts the audience on alert right away, but it also allows Shopgirl’s final scenes to ring absolutely true. There are no easy routes to a happy ending, and when Mirabelle faces the fork in the road in her relationship with Ray, a man who has never honestly articulated his own reservations to her, she eloquently summarizes the dilemma we have all faced in a relationship; “I can either hurt now,” she says, “or I can hurt later.”
Shopgirl is by no means a perfect film. Tucker presents us with several shots of Ray on his private plane, soaring to and from his West Coast mansions, deep in thought, but what is he thinking? Our insight into the truth of his feelings is limited to hindsight; a few bits of voice over narration and a couple of emotionally intense interactions with Mirabelle. Otherwise, the audience is pretty much left at sea as to the true nature of his desire. This doesn’t mean some stagy analysis is required, but Shopgirl would certainly benefit from some romantic feeling between its leads. Like all great romantic comedies, Shopgirl walks a fine line; overstatement would certainly undermine the film’s essential heartbreak. From Ray’s perspective, his only real connection with Mirabelle seems to be a sexual one, after which he rewards her with expensive gifts. “It’s easy for me,” he says, and without Mirabelle’s need (and ours) for a deeper articulation of Ray’s true feelings, the relationship might feel like one between a kept woman and her patron. But Mirabelle is no Pretty Woman. While she is not unreasonable to enjoy being treated to lavish gifts and flown all over creation, it is her conscious need to be wholly loved without regret or doubt, to be desired for who she is, that ultimately forces her to confront the reality of her relationship with Ray. In this way, Mirabelle is a great romantic heroine; comfortable in her own skin, desirous of what she deserves from life, flattered by Ray’s attention, but unwilling to compromise her true self. Martin’s script, allegedly written in response to his own romance with a younger woman, seems like a perfect gift to an ex-lover; a beautiful explanation for why things didn’t work out. Shopgirl is that rarest of on-screen romances, balancing hope and heartbreak, comedy and melancholy, and articulating the essential truth about a failed love affair. Finally.