Lovers leave. Parties end. Bad jobs go on forever. Seriously, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life?
— Joe (Laurie Ventry), Late Night Shopping
In their commentary for Late Night Shopping, director Saul Metzstein and writer Jack Lothian explain that when they met, Lothian was writing a novel without any adjectives. “I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like being told in books how things looked,” Lothian says. “I just thought I’d rather make it up for myself.” Although they agree the result was terrible, Metzstein liked the dialogue and encouraged Lothian to start writing for film. “With scripts, you don’t actually need adjectives very much, so it was a marriage made in heaven,” he says.
Not exactly. A union of stylish visuals and paint-by-numbers characterization, Late Night Shopping follows Sean (Luke de Woolfson), Vincent (James Lance), Lenny (Enzo Cilenti), and Jody (Kate Ashfield), four acquaintances turned maybe-friends who work nights in dead-end jobs and frequent the same nearby cafe. They meet for coffee between shifts, sharing the kind of banter and confessions that might keep a long night alive but never linger in the morning. The same is true of Late Night Shopping, a moderately pleasant but forgettable entry in the genre best described as “20somethings in flux.”
Sean serves as this amorphous film’s center. A hospital porter, he wonders if his live-in girlfriend, Madeline (Heike Makatsch, the office girl who wooed Alan Rickman in Love Actually), actually stays at their apartment; he’s taken to examining the soap, towels, and pillows for signs of use. They fought three weeks ago — something to do with him not being romantic enough — and he hasn’t laid eyes on her since. At first, he was avoiding her, but now he’s hiding out, lost in dread. If he went home straight after work, he could catch her — or learn that she’s not sleeping there — but instead he lingers at the cafe, bemoaning his state to whomever in the quartet will listen. “What if it turns out that it is over between us?” he asks Jody. “That’s what I’m really scared of.”
“That sounds like — what’s that guy thing called?” she asks.
“Yeah. The fear.”
In the right filmmaker’s hands, emotional cowardice — really more of a person thing than a guy thing — can be a rich subject. Noah Baumbach proved that 10 years ago with Kicking and Screaming. Like Late Night Shopping, his film revolved around four friends brought together by circumstance (in their case, college), while focusing on one particular love affair. But where Baumbach told better jokes, offered more vivid characters, and made viewers care about Grover and the love whose departure haunts him, Lothian’s script simply presents Sean as a sad sack boyfriend and assumes we will care how his story turns out.
It’s a bold assumption, given how little we learn about Sean, and how generic he seems. When he shares coffee with a girl at the hospital, she cuts him off. “You know what I feel like doing? Not having that conversation where two people bore each other with their life stories.”
“I didn’t realize I was boring you.”
“No, you weren’t. It’s just, guy works nights in hospital. I think I can fill in the blanks.”
There are many blanks in Late Night Shopping. While Metzstein shot exteriors in both London and Glasgow, he keeps its fictional setting undetermined. The cafe where the friends gather is a cavernous set decorated with nods to Katz’s Deli in New York and other stateside venues because, the director says in the commentary, he likes the idea “that in the modern world, people live in these sort of Americanized versions of places.”
But do viewers want an Americanized version of a British film? Metzstein and Lothian namecheck everything from Diner to Clerks to Friends (struggling to pen dialogue for Sean and Madeline that was both romantic and funny, the writer took to calling them Ross and Rachel for inspiration), but they only mention the typical handheld Brit film as something they opted not to do.
Friends is a telling reference, because Late Night Shopping is about as deep as a sitcom and half as funny. The characters are stock: in addition to bland Shawn, there’s Vincent the cad, who gets some of the best lines (“I’m trying to be as one-dimensional as possible”) and quirks (he believes his sexual power comes from his watch, supposedly once owned by Errol Flynn), but still feels tiredly familiar. Lenny is the resident oddball (thanks to a stint writing letters for a Penthouse type of mag, he has “porno reactions” any time he feels the slightest interest in a woman), while Jody is the token girl (a fact only underscored by Metzstein’s disclosure that her subplot fell victim to editing).
A different film might mine the characters’ jobs for material, but Lothian isn’t that invested. He’s just writing what he knows: “I actually had previously worked in a supermarket and a hospital and a call center and thought it’d be easier just to put these jobs in the film because no one could really argue with me when I said certain things happen in a supermarket,” he explains on the DVD. Even the night setting is a choice of convenience, as the filmmakers originally assumed that their small budget would require shooting most of the film at night.
With so many measured calculations at work behind the scenes, it’s little wonder Late Night Shopping ignites no passion in its viewers. One question — “And then what?” — is repeated at different points, ostensibly to pound home the film’s message of limbo and dislocation. But the gambit fails, because we haven’t been made to care, or even think. Sean and Madeline might work things out. Vincent might learn to care for someone. Lenny might find a normal relationship with a girl. Jody might get a life of her own (possibly, shudders, with Vincent). But the movie makes no promises, because, you know, the open ending is much more honest in this age of cinema. And so what?