Confessions of a Shopaholic

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Yes, it’s a bad time to release a film like “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” an ode to shallow consumerism whose vapid Manhattanite heroine loves racking up credit card debt and has a dangerous psychological attachment to department stores. (“A man will never love you or treat you as well as a store,” she says, and somehow we’re expected not to find this alarming.) Her whimsical avoidance of collection agencies and the fairy-tale way she finally gets out of debt could inspire resentment in viewers who are enduring rough financial times for real. It’s also hard not to yell at her for being so reckless and irresponsible, and at the movie for treating it all like fun and games.

But never mind that. It’s not the movie’s fault that it’s coming out at a time when some people feel the economy is too serious a subject to joke about. More important is this question: When IS the right time to release a hollow, one-dimensional, unfunny, illogical, mindless comedy with a poorly defined protagonist and a dumbly formulaic plot? What would be the right social climate for yet another lame romantic comedy where a woman has an awkward encounter with a stranger who turns out to be her boss? (“Shopaholic” has TWO scenarios like that, one with her boss and one with the leader of her shopaholics’ support group.) What is the ideal placement for a cluttered, unfocused, shamelessly derivative mishmash?

I know — January, right? What is this doing in February?

Our retail-addicted pixie is Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), a writer for a gardening magazine who really wants to work at a Vogue-like glamour mag called Alette, since she knows all about couture and designer labels and crap like that. She knows it intimately, in fact: She’s maxed out all nine of her credit cards on things like two-hundred-dollar scarves, and she’s so far behind on her payments that she now spends her evenings feeding lies to the debt collectors calling her at home. (Her cards start being declined, including at a bookstore, where the clerk tells her, “The limit on your credit card has been reached.” You’d think a movie about shopping would get that detail right: Clerks don’t know WHY your card has been declined, only that it has been.)

After she’s beaten out for the Alette job, Rebecca takes a gig at a magazine owned by the same company, figuring once she’s in the family it will be easier to move to Alette. The job she gets, though, is at Successful Saving — a financial advice magazine! And she’s really BAD with finances! Get it??

Her new boss and obligatory love interest is Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy), a tweedy Brit who is bemused and enchanted by Rebecca’s shenanigans. She lies to him about her financial savvy, of course, primarily so that later on he can find out she was lying and feel betrayed and disappointed, because HOW DARE someone have credit card debt? She also lies about the bill collector, Derek Smeath (Robert Stanton), who’s chasing her, telling Luke that Derek is a stalker ex-boyfriend … which, OK, is a pretty bad lie to tell, and I don’t blame Luke for being mad when he learns the truth.

Rebecca becomes a hit at Successful Saving by writing an anonymous column from the perspective of a regular ol’ shopper. For example, one of her essays is about the importance of carefully examining the interest rate before getting a store credit card. People rave about this obvious bit of advice as if Rebecca were the second coming of Milton Friedman for giving it — which makes me wonder what kind of articles Successful Saving was running before she arrived. “What a Checking Account Does”? “Mnemonic Devices for Remembering How Many Quarters Are in a Dollar”? “How to Tell a $10 Bill from a $20”?

The overall trajectory of the film, adapted by three writers, based on Sophie Kinsella’s novel, and directed by P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), is a jumbled wreck, at least partially due to the rejiggered ending that was shot several months after the rest of the film, but I wouldn’t put all the blame there. The whole thing is a bad idea anyway. Rebecca is shown to have a real, diagnosable, legitimately serious spending addiction — she actually describes, in tender tones, with mood-appropriate musical scoring, how shopping makes her feel like the world is OK, and then it wears off and she has to do it again — yet the movie only wants to joke around about it. Ha ha, she’s going to Shopaholics Anonymous! The people there are ravenous retail shoppers who will cuddle with a pair of shoes if they’re on sale! Isn’t this merry and fun and frivolous?

When the film does confront the realities of such an addiction — including problems with her parents (John Goodman and Joan Cusack) and best friend (Krysten Ritter) — it lets Rebecca weasel out of them through the usual Hollywood magic, with last-minute rescues and very little effort on Rebecca’s part. Whew! Thank goodness that serious crisis that could have permanently devastated her financial well-being was avoided! Now, you folks watching the movie: Aren’t all these expensive clothes PRETTY? Don’t you wish YOU could buy them?

There is also the matter of the film’s humor, which is not funny. It’s full of lame, lowbrow sight gags, like Rebecca obliviously using an electric pencil sharpener in the middle of a meeting. (Is she an airhead? In some scenes, yes. In other scenes, no.) We’re treated to the old trope where she mixes up her correspondence and sends a mean letter to the wrong person, then has to retrieve it before it’s received — which she does successfully, which means the whole thing was pointless, plot-wise. There’s even a bit at the annual company banquet where she stumbles into the kitchen, is mistaken for a waitress, and is ordered out on the floor to serve people’s dinners. I recall this being funny when it happened to Elmer Fudd, but something has been lost in the translation.

It also has a lot of those stupid “surprise” gags where someone’s in trouble, but then the boss turns out to love the idea:

(Grumpy face) “Rebecca just said the most outrageous thing to me! (happy face) Outrageously BRILLIANT, that is!”

(Grumpy face) “You’ve ruined this magazine and done terrible damage to our reputation with your writer’s carelessness. There’s only one thing to do now: (happy face) Start a new magazine and put you in charge of it!”

Et cetera.

Isla Fisher, who has given winning performances in films like “Wedding Crashers,” is genuinely talented and deserves better than this. She reminds me of Anna Faris: cute, smart, good at playing dumb, great at physical comedy, but often stuck in terrible movies. Fisher’s knack for slapstick would come in handy if “Shopaholic” had anything inspired for her to do, and her deftness with a punch line would have been obvious if any good punch lines had been written. I gather the book is better than this. It would almost have to be.

D- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG, a little vulgarity and mild profanity.)

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