Confessions of a Shopaholic

2009-02-13 (General release)

What is John Salley doing in this movie? Sadly, his role, so-called, seems clear enough. He’s D. Freak, yo!, a former NBA star with loads of money and an addiction to shopping that lands him in a therapy group. Here he serves as something like a foil for the primary addict in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher). Most obviously, they provide a contrast in appearance: she’s small and white and girly, he’s tall and black and manly. More desperately, he both confirms and pathologizes her desire to shop: when Rebecca describes for the group the sensual thrill she feels when seeing department store displays and watching the swipe of her credit card, D. Freak starts to quake with delight. In this moment, the rules about who’s supposed to shop and who’s not become painfully clear: Rebecca’s pleasure is cute and predictable. His, by contrast, is a joke, unfunny but emphatic.

Unsurprisingly, this moment undercuts the ostensible premise of P.J. Hogan’s movie. Yes, Rebecca is in eh group because someone has determined she has a problem. Specifically, that problem is $16,000 in credit card debt, racked up because she literally cannot say no to department store mannequins who come to life and urge her to purchase scarves and shoes and coats she doesn’t need or even wear. As these bits of colorful costume accumulate in her closet, Rebecca has increasing trouble paying rent, her habit enabled by her roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter), who repeatedly lets the money thing slide. The girls have devised a sweet ritual for times like these, whereby they drink tequila and peruse the month’s bills, Suze making extravagant faces to highlight the irrationality of her friend’s spending: ($200 worth of Marc Jacobs underwear! A session at a foot spa!). It actually doesn’t look like much fun, but the movie spends many minutes insisting that Suze and Rebecca really really enjoy their routine.

They also enjoy shopping, of course. The difference between them is inane but, like the John Salley business, demonstrates Rebecca’s illness: Suze is marked right off as an avid thrift store customer (she wears a coat with frayed sleeves and assembles colorful outfits from obviously inexpensive fragments), while Rebecca always wears in audacious “high” fashion, the sorts of clothes that only girls in movies about the fashion industry would don during the workday. The clothes reflect her flakiness, which may or may not be a cover for her brilliance. When she loses her job as a “journalist” (it appears she’s doing stories on trade shows before she’s fired), Rebecca needs a way to maintain her habit (if not pay her debt), and applies to a money magazine.

Though she knows absolutely nothing about finances or markets or banks, she gets the job because she’s able to “explain” complex concepts for lay readers — that is, flakey consumers like herself. The catch is, as she prescribes fiscal prudence in her column, Rebecca cannot reveal to her new boss, the wealthy Brit dish Luke (Hugh Dancey). Enter the dismal rom-com plot: Rebecca woos Luke, rues her lies, and pursues reconciliation of her rapidly disintegrating life strands.

These strands don’t ever really come together, but they are embodied by a cacophonous selection of players, of which John Salley is merely the tallest. As she is using the money magazine gig as a stepping stone to a fashion monthly edited by the imperious, faux-French Alette Naylor (Kristen Scott Thomas), Rebecca is haunted by the specter of her still-living parents (John Goodman and Joan Cusack, both looking as out of place as humanly possible), ultra-thrifty types who have inadvertently imbued in their little girl an aversion to shopping malls that sell “brown things that last forever.” Desperate not to be them, Rebecca aspires instead to be Alette, or maybe just her underling, Alicia (Leslie Bibb), possessed of long legs and insipidly catty affect. Like D. Freak, Alette and Alicia are in place to make Rebecca look relatively sympathetic.

But the film can’t have it all the ways it wants. While it makes shopping seem a giddy thrill (complete with those digitally animated mannequins, supremely creepy), it also scolds Rebecca for indulging. While it makes her work for Luke seem excellent, it also makes fun of the industry insiders who fall for her scam. The only consistent storyline is the least interesting, Rebecca’s presentation as a perfectly acceptable romantic heroine, no matter that she’s selfish, crass, and vapid, or that her movie is just a Sex and the City knockoff.

RATING 2 / 10