Fantasy Isla! Baron Cohen’s Babe Breaks Out in Shopaholic

sarrisconfessions of a shop Fantasy Isla! Baron Cohens Babe Breaks Out in ShopaholicConfessions of a Shopaholic
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert
Directed by P. J. Hogan
Starring Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, John Goodman, Joan Cusack

P. J. Hogan’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, from a screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert, is based on the books Confessions of a Shopaholic and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan by Sophie Kinsella. Ms. Kinsella has written five Shopaholic books, all best sellers in both the United Kingdom, from which they originated, and the United States, where they were equally embraced. The only problem is that Confessions of a Shopaholic is arriving in theaters at a time in our history when enormous credit card debt has become a global problem, and the cutesy venial sin of the heroine of the Shopaholic novels and this film seems irrelevant and possibly toxic. 

Even so, I was somewhat amused by the antics of Isla Fisher’s magazine writer Rebecca Bloomwood as she maxes out all her credit cards in her uncontrollable mania for shoes, clothes and accessories from the most expensive department stores. It is an addiction that began in childhood, and I wish I knew the name of the devastatingly talented tot who played Rebecca Bloomwood as a shopaholic in the making, so I could praise her in print.

Not that the Australia-raised Ms. Fisher is anything less than sparklingly bubbly in her farcical flamboyance. But then I don’t know where we’d be movie-wise if there had never been an Australia to serve as a training ground for wild talent. Speaking of which, producer Jerry Bruckheimer selected Australia-born, U.S.-based P. J. Hogan to direct Confessions of a Shopaholic: “P.J.’s work has the kind of deft light touch that we wanted for the movie. Both Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) were two pictures that I loved watching. He has such a wonderful sense of humor and a delightful romantic touch.”

As for the timeliness or untimeliness of the production, executive producer Mike Stenson struck a positive pose: “If you look at the debt crisis going on in the U.S. right now with everyone having 27 credit cards, everybody can relate to Rebecca Bloomwood.”

Well, perhaps not quite everybody. The box office will have the final say. In the meantime, we critics have to decide how worshipful we should be toward this flaunting of high fashion while pretending to ridicule it. It’s the old Hollywood game of having all your luxury goods, and pretending that they don’t bring happiness without true love.

That sacred duty is assigned to Hugh Dancy’s Luke Brandon, a Brit workaholic magazine editor who is taught to relax in a warmer climate by the irrepressible shopaholic herself. If I understand our president correctly, workaholics are more needed now than shopaholics. But let’s be fair. Not too long ago, it was the duty of American consumers to shop until they dropped, and no one warned them of the dire consequences to follow their splurges of extravagance.

Still, it is indicative of the film’s bad faith that its closest approximation of a villain is Robert Stanton’s Derek Smeath, an intrusive bill collector for the credit card companies, which have been stiffed by Rebecca to pay for her shopping sprees. How dare he try to clip our heroine’s wings!

Smeath’s feminine counterpart is Leslie Bibb’s magazine staffer Alicia Billington, a fairly gorgeous creature herself. Of course, middle-class Rebecca would never have possessed the fancy address on her résumé if it were not for the generosity of her upscale girlfriend-landlord, Krysten Ritter’s Suze Cleath-Stuart.

John Goodman and Joan Cusack supply sentiment and eccentricity as Rebecca’s down-to-earth parents, and Kristin Scott Thomas is wasted in a laboriously written role as French fashion designer Alette Naylor. John Lithgow contributes his air of authority as the magazine magnate who helps the romantic leads stay afloat.

It is not surprising that the hullabaloo raised by meetings of Shopaholic Anonymous does little to discourage the religion of upscale shopping. Actually, the funniest gags are inspired by Rebecca’s addiction. My favorite occurs when her line of sight includes both a good-looking male passerby and a scrumptious display window.

The passerby smiles expectantly at the ecstatic expression on Rebecca’s face until he realizes that she is reacting only to the department store window. Ms. Fisher brings the gags off with the perfect timing that has been her hallmark in popular comedies such as Wedding Crashers (2005) and Definitely, Maybe (2008). Nonetheless, I can’t really recommend this movie in these perilous times, except for viewers in search of a nostalgic chuckle or two.

asarris@observer.com