Don't take this the wrong way, as this Steve Martin project was a very good movie, and well worth seeing. But man, was this a disappointing movie. It featured generally likable characters brought to life by solid acting performances, a deliberate directing touch, and a winning script. Yet in spite of this, the movie shot itself in the foot in three key places, turning what should have been an excellent film into merely a good one. And considering the paucity of top-notch movies out there, this near-miss hurts a bit more than it should, especially considering the absolutely brilliant performance Jason Schwartzman puts in. Brushing it off as a near-miss (which it is) does him especially an injustice.
The movie is based on a novel by Steve Martin, adapted into a screenplay by Steve Martin, and starring Steve Martin. And yet, it is not a vanity project. It is a serious comedy, featuring Martin slipping into what at his point could very well be dubbed 'The Bill Murray role' much more easily than those Pink Panther remakes would have you think. Claire Danes plays the lead character well. But stealing the show is Schwartzman, playing a character who can only be described as quirky, whether he's bringing amps onstage unasked at rock shows or flexing his hands while listening to yoga tapes. He more than delivers in the second major role I've seen him play (The first being Rushmore). And the movie itself should add up to even more than the sum of these considerable parts, if not for three fatal flaws.
The first is a minor one. Movies in this style are prone to featuring lengthy shots of still images, and often use music to fill the void. Shopgirl is no exception, putting the original score in places where there is no dialogue. And the score is melodic, but by the end of the movie it feels like you have heard the same 15 seconds of a symphony repeated 45 kajillion times. It gets a bit repetitive. Secondly, Schwartzman's character undergoes a major personality overhaul, but it does not come close to being explained. This is a rather large problem. Part of telling a story is explaining or showing what happens to the characters. Quite often, this is the enitirety of telling a story. And when not a cursory attempt at it is made, it is missed. And most importantly, the movie features narration. Not a constant narrator. Four different short bits of it. And these sound like they are being read directly from Martin's novel. This is a complete failure. With moving pictures, we can see what the characters feel by watching their actions. Having a scene go with no sound while a narrator announces "X felt this way about Y" is both jarring and awful simultaneously.
Anyway, dissuading you from watching the movie is not my intent, regardless of how that last paragraph reads. Shopgirl is a good movie, and well worth watching. But while you see what it is, try also to think of what it was so close to being.