There is accounting for taste–there has to be–and so I begin this review of Breakfast on Pluto by acknowledging my career as a cross-dressing musical artiste of the 1970s. A very brief career: I was in fact oblivious to that era’s trend, or (if you prefer) world-shaking cultural upheaval of gender-bent pop music. Congenitally square, irremediably straight, I would have missed the whole thing, except for having been assigned to hop around a stage nightly in hermaphrodite drag, as the pet androgyne in a Chicago production of Volpone.
Because of that experience (and maybe a few others), glitter rock and the territory beyond were not alien enough to me to seem enticing. Neither were they so charged with immanent meaning as to promise liberation. To this day, I can name only one song by David Bowie; and yet a fictional tribute to him, Velvet Goldmine, is by far my favorite Todd Haynes movie, not because I love the music and fashions but because Haynes does. They bring out the fantasy and irresponsibility in him; they make him playful. On the evidence of his other films, I’d guess that Haynes doesn’t trust those tendencies in himself any more than he believes that fabulousness is an adequate program for young gay men when they’re isolated and beset. On that last point, as a practical matter, I’d have to agree. But since I have no practical reasons for going to the movies or listening to music, I continue to watch Velvet Goldmine for its value as escapism and to enjoy glitter rock (through its effect on Haynes and others) as a contact high.
Neil Jordan’s latest feature, Breakfast on Pluto, happens to skirt Bowie’s music, even though much of the film is set in London during the early and mid-1970s. You hardly even get disco. But in telling the story of Patrick “Kitten” Braden (played by Cillian Murphy, who wears lip gloss as if he’d been born for it), the movie throbs, or lilts, or sometimes bounces along perkily to the many pop tunes that are, as Kitten might say, the soundtrack of her life. It is not a serious life, or it is as little serious as she can make it. Isolated and beset as a child, and for that matter as a grown-up, Kitten feels she would have more than enough troubles to ignore even if she could avoid the guns-and-bombs aspect of Irish politics, which she can’t. So her program is to let her favorite tunes carry her along as she drifts through various showbiz careers: cross-dressing musical artiste, theme-park dancing animal, magician’s assistant, peep-show girl-on-a-swing.
Based on a novel by Patrick McCabe (who has collaborated with Jordan before, on The Butcher Boy), Breakfast on Pluto takes the form of Kitten’s memoirs, which she dictates in voiceover to an infant she’s pushing in a pram. Experience addresses itself to Innocence, and to you, a presumably innocent member of the audience: You get an upbeat and even whimsical tale, sometimes commented upon by twittering animatronic birds, about abandonment, brutality, loss and impoverishment.
In outline, it’s the familiar story of the outcast child–a girl, born in a boy’s body–who runs off from her pious small town and winds up walking the streets of the big city. Many of the motifs are familiar, too, from earlier Jordan films, starting with Mona Lisa and The Miracle and running through The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy and even Interview With the Vampire. Slim, endangered beauties (of whatever gender) are forever sauntering through Jordan’s movies–along resort-town piers, down the London streets–trailed by hurt children or sad-eyed men, while a pop song cries out their emotions for them and the IRA prepares to set off another bomb. There will be Irish landscapes and absent blond mothers and a few fairy-tale creatures, and at some point Stephen Rea (Jordan’s signature actor) may perform a magic trick. As a summary of such Jordan stuff, Breakfast on Pluto flirts at times with auteurist self-reflection, while at other moments it threatens to become a social-issues report; but it rises above both categories, thanks to its conjunction of Innocence and Experience. While Kitten’s narration lends imaginative buoyancy to the tale, Jordan’s eye for detail (especially in the Irish settings) makes concrete and credible every fried sausage, dangling cigarette and snarled conversation.
Not that Kitten ever snarls. Although she’s played by Murphy, who created the truly creepy villains in Batman Begins and Red Eye, Kitten comes across as a loving and generous soul, whose slightly oversize, curly head rolls about loosely, as if it were too fascinated by everything to look in one direction for long, or too heavy for the starved torso to support. Here’s where the fashions come in. Kitten’s favorite clothes–such as a long, tailored double-breasted coat with snakeskin pattern and faux-fur collar–don’t just make her look lovely but seem to hold her up, like a groovy exoskeleton. Of course, it’s all in how you wear them. Kitten’s story is a fable of self-invention–that is, of the persistence needed to keep inventing oneself and survive; and Murphy, in complete harmony with the character, transforms himself. Some of what he does is heartbreaking, in a matter-of-fact way (as when, playing the teenage Kitten, he suffers at the hands of people who feel his body is theirs to yank about at will); and some of it is astonishingly funny (as when, after a week’s brutal interrogation by the police, he is summarily released and makes a mad dash to get back into the cell). Murphy is so good that he even makes you understand how a john can see Kitten as a bearer of hope and kindness when she’s standing hungry and bedraggled in the rain.
Though Murphy’s great performance carries the movie, dominating virtually every scene, Breakfast on Pluto is much bigger than a one-actor film. If anything, in fact, it’s too big. At two and a quarter hours, the picture may run through the patience of some viewers before it exhausts all its incidents, characters and plain roaming around. That said, the expansiveness serves a purpose. Kitten needs enough time and space for her journey so that she can later go home, for an improbable but wholly satisfying reconciliation.
Perhaps only a baby in a pram could believe it, but Kitten at last gets the unselfish love she’s always wanted, and from the least likely source. Never mind that her happiness, as always, is ringed by anger and violence–dark mutterings in the town, a nocturnal firebombing. The wonderful thing about Breakfast on Pluto is that a playful responsibility triumphs. That is to say, it persists.
As for the movie’s title, I’m told it comes from another of those pop songs I never heard.
The plot is sparse, the sentiments common and the mise-en-scène (by Anand Tucker) little more than workmanlike; so Shopgirl lives or dies on whether you care about Mirabelle, the young woman Claire Danes is impersonating. According to the setup, she is a Vermont native who came to Los Angeles to be an artist, and who now spends her days behind the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue and her nights alone in a small, cheap apartment. You might wonder why her drawings are mostly a thick surface of charcoal, rubbed across the paper edge-to-edge, and how come her social circle is limited to her cat; and you will get some answers, eventually. But long before the film slips you that information, you need to ache for Mirabelle and hope for her, or else there simply will be no movie.
I say this as high praise–because Steve Martin, who wrote Shopgirl (both the screenplay and the novella on which it’s based), now stands almost alone among contemporary American filmmakers in knowing what “character-driven” means, and because Claire Danes, from her first moment on the screen, makes Mirabelle into the bright, attractive friend you worry about.
She does it as a silent-movie actress would, or a dancer. She listens to the other performers not just with her ears and eyes but with her neck, stretching it, bobbing it, using it moment by moment to lean in to something she likes to hear or away from something that troubles her. When she’s disappointed, she doesn’t merely exhale, she deflates. When she smiles–really smiles–she also lifts, as if the expression were rising and spreading from the soles of her feet. In a lesser actress, this mime might seem artificial. But Danes is calculated only in keeping her features as still as the occasion allows, knowing that her broad, clear-skinned face, even at rest, is as legible as a billboard. Watching her, you think other actresses look half-alive at best. You even forget for a while that other actresses exist.
The conceit of Shopgirl is that Mirabelle herself has effortlessly and unintentionally made two men forget about other women. Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) is her age- and class-appropriate lover–or at least he would be, if she could put up with his company. An unshaven, stringy-haired shlub who chatted her up in the laundromat, Jeremy is either unusually candid or else was raised by wolves. He is so unpolished, not to mention cheap, that a long period of hanging out with a rock band can actually help to socialize him. While Jeremy is being so improved, Mirabelle allows herself to fall in with the much older and wealthier Ray (Steve Martin), who knows how to invite her to restaurants and pay her small, playful compliments. In Martin’s wonderfully subtle performance, in which he serves always as a foil for Danes, he is at first tentative in these attentions. He holds in check his extraordinary physical grace and instead plays up the weight that the years have added to his face and frame. He wants you to see that Ray knows Mirabelle could reject him, for the most irrefutable of reasons; and so, despite his money and sophistication, she has power over him, temporarily.
What makes Shopgirl so affecting (apart from Martin’s willingness to let Schwartzman get all the laughs) are the undercurrents that run between the characters: the hints of fear and sadness that are present even in their kindnesses to one another. Let a passing moment, of no importance to the plot, serve as the example. When Mirabelle goes home to Vermont for a visit, her father (Sam Bottoms) beams with joy at her presence, but he can’t think of anything to say to her. So the two, while loving each other, sit silent and apart.
As Martin says in his voiceover narration, that’s life. But as he also says, sometimes love breaks through, if it’s “tender and true.” In other movies, that sentiment would come across as corn. In Shopgirl, it’s something you can believe.
Claire Danes is the proof: tender and true.