Happy Danes! Shopgirl Shines

In the sudden plethora of faceless film stars with more publicity than talent, Claire Danes is a shining exception. With her wistful and querulous combination of distant longing and in-the-moment sensitivity, she is never less than totally committed to every role. Usually erasing her leading men from memory in a single radiant smile, she has a wan but intelligent beauty, and she can act. Shopgirl, adapted by Steve Martin from his novella, is about a May-December love affair between an older man (sensibly and attractively played by Mr. Martin, with plenty of sincerity and no shtick) and a girl young enough to be his daughter. They share the screen, but the movie is really more of a valentine to Claire Danes. She accepts it gracefully.

Lonely and unfocused, college graduate Mirabelle Buttersfield (Ms. Danes) moves from Vermont to Los Angeles to pursue an art career, but to pay off her student loan she is forced to take a job selling gloves at Saks. During the day, she watches waxed zombies from Beverly Hills stretching their mitts into elegant leather she can’t afford; at night, she goes home to a modest little apartment where her cat eats better than she does. Suddenly, there are two men in her life—well, make that one man and a hairy doofus who shows no sign of ever passing puberty. The older man is Ray Porter, a wealthy, successful and divorced Lochinvar who is charming, odd, coldly distant and played with exquisite elegance by Mr. Martin. (Why not? He created the role for himself and studied all the angles.) Ray sizes up Mirabelle at Saks and showers her with gifts, offering the reassuring warmth of a father figure without the promise of any long-term commitment.

Simultaneously, she is also romanced by a cretin she meets in a laundromat named Jeremy, played by the almost terminally creepy Jason Schwartzman, who specializes in freaks who speak in grunts and appear to be submental. Small wonder she chooses the older man, since the audience has already chosen him for her. Jeremy is a meathead slacker whose job is a blank (something about designing logos) and whose future is even bleaker. Ray knows how to make a wallflower feel like a debutante, and when he takes her to bed, she sees visions of security that shopgirls on breadline budgets only dream about. But Ray is dogged by problems of his own. He’s afraid of women once they’ve been seduced, he can’t show true tenderness, and there’s always a glint in his eye in a crowded room that suggests he may be looking for the next best thing. Only as the film progresses and Ms. Danes grows from Bridget Jones to Anna Karenina do we see how vulnerable Mirabelle really is and how deeply Ray lets her down. The fact that she eventually reunites with the oafish Jeremy is a letdown (she deserves better), but even he seems to have taken a toddler’s step toward maturity: He buys a razor and a toothbrush.

Carefully constructed by Mr. Martin, the Shopgirl screenplay retains the author’s sophisticated literary sensibility and is well served by director Anand Tucker to give a realistic picture of a young woman floating in the cheesy neon pudding of Los Angeles, where individuals struggle to forge meaningful relationships in an atmosphere of superficial values. The fact that the film takes its time involving you in the lives of its characters is to Mr. Martin’s credit. The leisurely pace is comforting as cashmere. I liked Shopgirl a lot, mainly because its heart is in the right place and because it is so refreshingly unpretentious.

Ms. Danes never makes a wrong move. The camera responds accordingly, caressing her movements, gazing adoringly into her moist eyes and enhancing her talent the way Frank Borzage celebrated Margaret Sullavan in the close-ups. For Mr. Martin, this is a welcome change of pace after years of regrettably dumb comedies that rely on sight gags for laughs instead of human foibles. I’ve always preferred his serious side; from the evidence of his books, he’s a thoughtful man, and in the character of Ray he has drawn from his best instincts as an actor. Ray is wise and nurturing, but weak when it comes to emotional strength; he’s a man who feels deeply but can’t show it except in material ways. (What a disaster this movie would be with a blank cartridge like Bill Murray in the lead.) Classy and suave, Mr. Martin is a babe magnet for the kind of girl who wants a lover and a dad all rolled into one, but how many bottles of perfume does it take to make her feel needed? Although he loves Mirabelle in his way, Ray’s kind of love doesn’t have forever written on it. When she sees the light, I get the feeling that her heartbreak will be temporary.

Jeremy appeals in a different way, because he loves her unselfishly. He might be an idiot, but he wants all of her, not just little fragments. Shopgirl seems to be saying that not loving in the same tempo will undeniably lead to loss, but in a cockeyed reversal of the sexes, it’s reassuring to see a movie in which it’s the older man who dumps the younger girl instead of the other way around. There are no villains and no victims here, just likeable people, bruised by their own sensitivity. The people at Disney’s Touchstone Pictures haven’t got a clue how to release, sell, market or publicize a film this special, so it will probably get lost in the overcrowded autumn shuffle. This will be a shame, of course. Soft and muted and irresistibly warm, Shopgirl is a feel-good movie that lingers.

Jack’s Back

It gives me pleasure to welcome back Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 masterwork, The Passenger, re-released for a new generation to savor. This is a stunning, sobering film experience with some of the most breathtaking camera work it has been my privilege to see. The film is full of metaphor and cynicism, but its impact is astonishing. Jack Nicholson is magnificent as David Locke, a hack reporter doing a documentary on North African guerrillas, unhappy with his life, disillusioned with his work, frustrated and exhausted as he approaches burnout.

His moment of truth comes in a sand-swept village hotel surrounded by silence, heat and bugs crawling on the plumbing. The whir of a ceiling fan is the only sound he hears. In the next room, a man dies. Locke steals his passport, plane ticket and identity. People disappear from the film every time they leave a room, yet remain the same even in foreign zones—translating everything into their own personal codes of experience. Very puzzling stuff, yet bracing in its eventual clarity of vision.

The point of The Passenger (and Mr. Antonioni’s psychic philosophy) is that life is not worth living. Trade in your own for a different model and you’ll only discover that nobody else’s life is worth living, either. I don’t agree, so the film becomes ultimately depressing when Mr. Antonioni insists that I do. But the mystery, ambiguity and inner passion unrequited are gorgeously telegraphed through visual terms in Mr. Antonioni’s best film after The Red Desert.

The Passenger has lost none of its power in 30 years. It exists on two levels: In a commercial, adventurous sense, it is an exciting mystery of chance, with Locke embarking on a new life only to discover, as he keeps the dead man’s appointments, that he is a gun-runner in immediate danger from unknown enemies as well as his pursuing wife and employers. (Mr. Nicholson’s perpetual look of a mangy dog whose fur has been rubbed by calloused hands in the wrong direction has never served him better.) On a starker level, it’s an investigation of illusions and dreams in an ambiance of surreal disposition and mood. The quest for life turns ironically into an odyssey of suicide. Not for the TV crowd, but a sober and rewarding film worthy of the same attention and time it received the first time around. The more I reflect on it, the more it grows on me, like a lichen.

Downey and Out

The title says it all: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is vulgar, noisy, pointless and stupid. This dismal masturbatory fantasy marks the directing debut of Shane Black, the one-dimensional hack who typed out such drivel as The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight and two Lethal Weapons. In Hollywood, if you drink enough latte and type fast enough and promise to finish up by Thursday, you too can become a director. Apparently nobody bothers to read the scripts anymore.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry, the thief-narrator who starts off by sawing a girl in half in a kiddie carnival in Indiana. Years later, while robbing a toy store in New York, he gets shot and his partner is killed while doing their Christmas shopping after closing hours. Fleeing from the police, Harry escapes into a room where auditions are being held for a movie about a petty thief whose partner is killed during a heist and … you get the picture.

Mistaken for an actor, Harry is so good at this art-imitating-life crap that (naturally, with no experience, and this being a Hollywood movie) the producers fly him to L.A. for a chance at stardom. A hopelessly miscast and depressingly humorless Val Kilmer plays “Gay Perry,” a homosexual detective assigned to coach and prepare Harry for his screen test. At a zonked-out Hollywood party, this mismatched team meets Harmony (Michelle Monaghan, currently being seen to better advantage in North Country), who grew up on a robot comic strip called Protocop. When the guy who played Protocop in the screen version accidentally falls to his death from her balcony in his Protocop costume, she drags Harry into a murder mystery so bizarre and implausible it comes right out of the slush pile in Quentin Tarantino’s wastebasket. From a Cuisinart of ideas borrowed, begged and stolen from a long line of better movies like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, a puréed plot unravels in which Harmony turns out to be the girl Harry sawed in half back in Indiana, Harry locks lips with Harmony, Perry locks lips with Harry, and the contrived idiocy is illustrated by so much surreal camerawork (red skies and blue buildings) and preposterous, metaphysical set designs that the whole movie seems positively schizophrenic. All of it is matched by the kind of incompetent, over-the-top posing that passes for acting in Shane Black movies (Val Kilmer as a butch queen reaches some kind of new low, even by Hollywood standards), as well as truly lousy dialogue (“I was tired … I was pissed … I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club!”) that sounds like Philip Marlowe on Quaaludes. For laughs, Mr. Downey is tortured by electrical wires attached to his genitals, Ms. Monaghan cuts his finger off, a dog eats it before he reaches the hospital to sew it back on, and she leaps from the car and jumps off a bridge wearing a Santa Claus costume.

There’s even an epilogue in which Harry tells the audience, “Don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings—I’m not going to end this 17 times,” but although the movie takes place over the course of four days, it seems more like four years. I suppose we all wish Mr. Downey a speedy recovery from his off-screen troubles, but Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang could send anyone back to rehab.

Don’t Stay—Go!

If you don’t want to feel alternately frustrated, confused, bored and exasperated, then stay away from Stay. With direction by Marc Forster, who made Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, and a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling and Naomi Watts, you might expect more. But this is worse than bad—it’s unbearable. Completely incomprehensible, Stay is filled with shots of swirling circular staircases that go nowhere, fuzzy images that might be ghosts, and dreamlike hallucinations from at least 20 other stinkers released in the past year. Yet the excessive visual hokum makes no more sense than the plot. Mr. McGregor plays a psychiatrist who meets Mr. Gosling, a troubled art student who announces that he will be committing suicide at midnight in a few days. Mr. McGregor discusses this with Ms. Watts, his loopy girlfriend, who once attempted suicide herself. Then he sets out to talk Mr. Gosling out of his fatal decision. But this outline is only an inch thick. It quickly becomes apparent that this movie is not about anything at all. Sets of people walk by in identical clothing. The same faces show up playing different characters. Time shifts. Actors meld. Then the camera spins around until you will either be forced to walk out or throw up. I opted for the former. How do you care about a movie that is only a mirage? Why do you want to watch actors waffling away their time on a maddening script, screwy direction, fanciful lighting and cheap tricks? This is the kind of flop that makes even the popcorn taste lousy. Happy Danes! Shopgirl Shines