Wednesday, May 03, 2006

L.A. Story II

Steve Martin is a talent capable of befuddling like almost no other.

On the strong hand, he’s recorded some of my favorite comedy albums of all time, made some of the funniest and most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, and been the best Oscar host in years – he’s done that last one twice, but nobody seemed to pay much attention on either occasion, which in itself is cause for befuddlement. He also writes thoughtful books and plays that seem to often times go unnoticed.

On the weak hand, he’s a guy who does crapola like the Father of the Bride & Cheaper by the Dozen movies, that, alongside fare such as Sgt. Bilko & Bringing Down the House, the public eats up with forks, knives and spoons. The monetarily successful Steve is the boring, predictable Steve. I haven’t seen his Clouseau, but I live with a feeling of dread that I someday soon probably will. I'll grant him this work I don't care for, because I'm sure it gives him the clout to do the stuff I adore. However, I read once that he said out of everything he’d ever done, in his entire career, he was most proud of the Father of the Bride films.

And that depressed the hell out of me. One would think he'd be more stoked by the work that he's got real creative investment in.

Which brings me to Shopgirl – a recent Steve Martin film that also depressed the hell out of me…but in an odd, bittersweet sort of way. He had two movies out in 2005: Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which grossed upwards of $80 million, and Shopgirl, which only took in about $10 mill. Guess which of the two was based on a novel by Steve Martin, and whose screenplay was also written by Steve Martin?

One of the great Steve flicks is L.A. Story – another film he wrote and starred in. It’s a movie that’s both in love with the city and intent on poking fun at it. I was recently saying to Jeanne that we don’t often see movies that are in love with L.A., unlike New York, which is frequently romanticized on film in a way that Los Angeles rarely is.

I believe Steve Martin is a complex individual who perhaps lives a very isolated existence which is also peppered with shades of hope and romantic ideals. It was difficult for me to watch Shopgirl and not think about his character, Ray Porter, as being a fictitious extension of Steve the person.

Ray also leads a life of isolation, until he meets Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), another isolated spirit, who works the glove counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. Together, they attempt a May-Decemberish sort of romance that in a very unspoken way seems to exist solely to put an end to both character's feelings of isolation. To tell you if they achieve this would be to ruin the film, so I won’t.

Also in the mix is a third loner, Jeremy, played by Jason Schwartzman. His story runs mostly parallel to Ray and Mirabelle’s, and is the least successful section of the piece, and yet it’s important to the overall tale.

To look at the DVD cover of Shopgirl, you might think it’s a comedy, but save for a few laughs I could count on a gloved hand, it’s by and large a sublimely dramatic piece. And yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that the movie was L.A. Story II, and that the pair would make an ideal Steve Martin double-feature.

Shopgirl is a strange, complex work. It’s a movie - like I recently spoke of on the subject of Freaked - that somehow slipped through the Hollywood system and got made, despite there being no viable target audience for it. It left me feeling anxious and uneasy, and yet, in the final scenes, its threads all come together in the proper order. Huge chunks of the film are about mood and vibe – it’s a character piece, make no mistake, but the characters exist to serve a higher function or idea.

It also uses a noticeable color schematic, and that color is green, in many different shades, but more often than not the drab ones. Green is displayed so frequently in this film, that anytime an opposing color is brought into the picture, you know it’s something of which to take note. This is rarely seen in studio fare anymore, and certainly not with the color green.

The film has stuck in my head over the past week since viewing it, even though when it was over, I was certain I’d likely never watch it again. Now I know that reaction to be incorrect. On the next viewing of Shopgirl, I’m sure I’ll have a much different experience from the one I had the first time.