Thursday, January 26, 2012

SHOPGIRL: The Novella and the Movie or How I Fell for Mirabelle Buttersfield and Claire Danes

“When you work in the glove department at Neiman’s, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore” ~ STEVE MARTIN, SHOPGIRL

I’ve always been a fan of the talents of Steve Martin; you just can’t call him a comedian, because he’s much more than that (actor, writer, musician, collector of fine art... AWild and Crazy Guy!)  In the year 2000 Steve Martin made his first foray into fiction, with a novella called; SHOPGIRL. I remember when it came out; it was the story of a young woman who works in the wasteland of Neiman Marcus… also known as the glove department. Usually, "the Ray Book Club" (one member... just me) finds himself reading the pistol popping tales typed out by the likes of Elmore Leonard or James Lee Burke. But I’ve always been such a fan of Steve Martin; I knew one day, I’d get around to reading SHOPGIRL.

“Mirabelle is attractive; it's just that she is never the first or second girl chosen” ~ STEVE MARTIN, SHOPGIRL

Well, it took me twelve years to stumble across a copy of it in my local thrift store travels. After I read it, I was sorry that I took so long to read this little gem..  Mirabelle Buttersfield (what an inspired name, I tell ya) is a willowy transplant from Vermont (so willowy, she's sometimes compaired to Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl) who comes to the land of palm trees and sunshine after college to pursue career as an artist. Unfortunately she soon finds herself two years into working behind the glove counter at Neimans. Martin’s Mirabelle is lonely, detected, fragile and child like... she lives alone in her little apartment in Silverlake... occasionally doing a self portait of herself on paper in black crayon, that might or might not sell at a local gallery... once every six months? Going even worse than her career as an artist, is her relationships with men. 

One night out of pure necessity, she allows herself to be picked up at the local Silverlake Laundromat by the bumbling goofball; Jeremy. Unfortunately Jeremy fails to sweep her off her feet, and also fails to give her the night passion she desired. All seems hopeless, then one day the mysterious Ray Porter walks up to her glove counter and to changes her life… but is it for the better? And when it seems that Mirabelle might find happiness... unbeknownst to her, Lisa, a fellow Neiman’s co-worker and master of fallatio, who would like nothing better to see her happiness to come to an end, because of pure jealousy… it’s tough out there in the world of Beverly Hills retail, I guess?

Martin's writing style in this piece is long on description and short on dialogue, but he really told a fine little tale, set against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Even his handling of Mirabelle's sex scenes are done with such grace, that you have to remind yourself that it's the former "Wild and Crazy Guy" who wrote this. I'm sure that there's a bit of autobiography to this book for Martin... you can tell the story was written by a man who's lost love. That being said; I must say that truly enjoyed SHOPGIRL. I just found myself as a reader rooting for Mirabelle Buttersfield and in essence just falling for her, until it ended on page 130.


RAY PORTER (V.O.): Mirabelle Buttersfield moved from Vermont hoping to begin her life. And now she is stranded in the vast openness of L.A. She keeps working to make connections, but the pile of near misses is starting to overwhelm her. What Mirabelle needs is an omniscient voice to illuminate and spotlight her and to inform everyone that this one has value, this one standing behind the counter in the glove department and to find her counterpart and bring him to her.

Again, I missed the film version of SHOPGIRL when it first came out. Who knows why? Possibly, I didn’t
see it because I had wanted to read the book first? Well soon after I did finally read the book, I went right on Amazon to order the movie (which was released in 2005.) This little film is wonderfully crafted by Anand Tucker, and adapted to the screen by Martin. Claire Danes was brilliantly cast in the role of Mirabelle. She truly brought this literary heroine to life for me. She just hit all the right notes as Mirabelle; the frustration, the sadness, the feeling of insignificance that can happen in a vast metropolis like Los Angeles. But when Mirabelle in her moments of hopefulness and happiness is channeled through Danes bright eyes and iridescent smile… none is more radiant than she.

I also especially loved how the color palette of the film changes with emotions of Mirabelle. Wonderfully shot by Peter J. Suschitzky, and the establishing shots of Los Angeles itself really gives the film a sense that the city is one of the stories main characters (although, I believe that much of the film was shot in Canada.) In the film Mirabelle leans longingly against the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenuein Beverly Hills, not Neiman Marcus… no matter.

Again inspired casting was Jason Schwartzman as her hapless suitor Jeremy (who will find himself also going through his own transformation in the story.) And Steve Martin himself shows up in the role of phantom millionaire businessman Ray Porter, who seems to be Mirabelle’s guardian angel (as well as lover) and unfortunately possibly his own worst enemy. As Mirabelle’s older suitor, Martin originally thought of Tom Hanks for the role, but eventually stepped into the part, in one of his rare non-comedic turns. Like Danes and Schwartzman, it was a role that he was especially meant to play. The movie follows the book very close, although there are a few changes here and there. The film also loses Mirabelle's emotional back story with her Vietnam Vet father... but in the end, it's Mirabelle story and she finds through her trials, that she is not insignificant at all, but someone to be cherished.

As Ray Porter watches Mirabelle walk away he feels a loss.
How is it possible, he thinks, to miss a woman whom he kept at a distance so that when she was gone he would not miss her…

You might say that SHOPGIRL is a chick flick? Well, I hope you don’t… I’d say it’s a movie about lost people in a big, big city just trying to connect … this kinda stuff happens everyday.


  1. It is a movie about connection or not in Ray's case, this film is exactly like a relationship I had and unless you have been involved with ' a Ray ' its hard to understand what this movie is trying to express, it helped me heal and recover from a heartbreaking episode in my life

  2. Thank you, for your comment.

    Yet another "Ray"