Toward the end of Confessions of a Shopaholic, a dad (John Goodman) tells his adult daughter, who’s carrying 16 grand in unpaid credit card bills, “If the U.S. economy can be billions in debt and still survive, so can you.” Maybe he should have added, “Knock on wood.” Or, “If I’m comparing our country to a low-paid young woman with the spending habits of a madcap socialite, then we’re all screwed.”
But this is not a nouveau Depression-era screwball comedy. Social commentary is well beyond the purview of Shopaholic, based on the bestselling novel by Sophie Kinsella. Basically, it’s a frothy Valentine’s Day rom com with a difference: Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) isn’t particularly interested in men. Or in anyone. In the opening scene, she trots past an eligible bachelor, who’s clearly eyeing her, on a Manhattan street. But she’s ogling the designer duds on a store mannequin behind him.
While “retail therapy” seems to feature in virtually every chick flick these days, Shopaholic puts it front and center. Like Carrie Bradshaw in the early years of “Sex and the City,” Rebecca is a young journalist wearing clothes no young journalist sans trust fund could afford. (Both characters’ outlandish ensembles are courtesy of costume designer Patricia Field.) But, unlike Carrie, Fisher’s character shares her tiny apartment with a (conveniently rich) friend and wears out her stilettos dodging collections officers.
Few activities are more maligned and encouraged by our society than compulsive luxury spending, and Shopaholic manages to capture the essence of the addiction. When the book was initially published in the U.K., it bore the more evocative title The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic — a dreamworld we enter early in the movie, when Rebecca stops on the way to a job interview for a spot of shopping. Hoping to impress the editor of a snooty fashion magazine, for which she’s eager to leave her current job, she zeroes in on a filmy teal scarf. Nothing about it justifies the $100 price tag, but Fisher circles the mannequin like a hummingbird drunk on nectar, rhapsodizing about how the bold accessory will help “define [her] psyche.” When she realizes she’s out of both cash and credit, she resorts to desperate measures. The ensuing plot developments are absurd, but the impulse isn’t: Once the Shopaholic has spun the scarf into her fantasies, making it part of herself, how can she possibly leave it behind?
Sporting hair of a coppery-strawberry shade that clashes relentlessly with her jewel-toned apparel, Fisher manages to make obsessiveness pretty cute, just as she did in Wedding Crashers. Maybe it’s because her small face is so expressive that we can practically see the gears turning in her head — and they’re always turning toward a shiny new bauble, or a tactic that will snag her one.
Rebecca’s pathology involves more than greed, though. Finally out on a date — with her new editor (Hugh Dancy) — she dithers over a choice of cheap souvenir fans from a street vendor, trying to decide on the perfect design. We find out why when she uses the trinket as a prop in a deliriously silly version of the tango. And director P.J. Hogan reminds us that he made his name with Muriel’s Wedding, another movie about girls who just want to have fun.
Too bad the rest of the plot is so tired. A contrived chain of events lands Rebecca a job at a drab finance magazine, where she somehow becomes a woman-on-the-street personal-savings guru despite her unfamiliarity with the word “fiscal.” If the script had made this development halfway plausible, Shopaholic might have been a timely satire of all those fortunes built on air and currently falling to earth. (If The Secret can be taken seriously as financial advice, why not Rebecca?)
Instead, it’s just another girlish fantasy, and an opportunity for thudding irony as the fiscal-responsibility queen plays cat and mouse with her creditors. Meanwhile, Rebecca’s romance with her blandly handsome editor generates exactly zero sparks. That’s understandable — she’s too busy looking out for her next purchase. And if Fisher has any sense, she’ll shop around before she takes another role like this one.