A very gifted comedienne and a bulging shopping bag of inane antics and material-girl excess wrestle to a draw in “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” The third high-profile chick flick, after “Bride Wars” and “He’s Just Not That Into You,” to be released within the first six weeks of the new year, this adaptation of the first two of Sophie Kinsella’s massively popular novels strains far too hard for comedy that seldom erupts with full force and inevitably betrays a free-spending mindset that now feels gone with the wind. But as a young lady who can’t say no to a beautiful dress or accessory, Isla Fisher is not to be denied, and her irrepressible comic personality overcomes a number of the film’s impediments. B.O. prospects look rosy.
At first glance, “Shopaholic,” which launched in print in the U.K. in 2000, would seem to test the limits of how far the temptations of shopping and the needless amassing of accoutrements can be fetishized. After all, the heroine, Rebecca Bloomwood, is a walking, talking, pratfalling embodiment of acquisitiveness, a fashion queen who admits upfront that, from childhood, her goal in life was to obtain a credit card and warns that, “A man will never love you as well as a store.”
For a guy, anyway, such a mindset presents a bit of an obstacle, and a character espousing it may not be one with whom you might choose to spend a couple of hours. But, in time-honored fashion, the compulsion is flaunted in order to be cured, so in the end, “Confessions of a Shopaholic” can position itself not as a remnant of a financially excessive era, but as a cautionary tale and even a call to throw out your credits cards — or least to keep them well holstered.
For someone who can’t immediately identify with the elemental drama of two women getting into a catfight over sale-priced Pucci boots, P.J. Hogan’s film can be something of a trial. Also not helping is the way Rebecca (Fisher) continually stumbles upward in the high-powered New York publishing world, shown as still flourishing. Frustrated at her inability to crack the pages of top-of-the-line fashion monthly Alette, the debt-ridden Rebecca settles for a trial run at Successful Saving, a money mag edited by handsomely rumpled young Brit Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy), even though her knowledge of finance doesn’t even extend to balancing an account.
Luke puts up with Rebecca long enough for her to find her journalistic “voice,” whereupon she becomes an unlikely sensation with her column, “The Girl in the Green Scarf.” Invited to tony business conferences and swanky parties, she covers her ignorance by saying things so outrageously impudent that the astonished men gobble it up.
Attempting to address her shopping problem, Rebecca goes, all dolled up, to Shopaholics Anonymous meetings, where, in one of the droller scenes, her paean to the raptures of buying almost brings the group to ruin. Recurring amusement also stems from Rebecca’s relentless pursuit by a geeky debt collector (an effective Robert Stanton). The picture, along with the characters, loosens up when the action moves for a spell to Miami, where Rebecca performs a wonderfully frisky fan dance for the benefit of Luke, who finally takes the relationship in an intimate direction.
But these minor charms are regularly countered by gross, forced comedy Hogan tends to push in the viewer’s face, especially when it involves women shrieking, tussling or freaking out. There is an urge toward slapstick and klutzy behavior that seems misapplied and ought to have been resisted, and while Fisher can pull it off with her dignity still partly intact, it would have been better to have allowed her to be more real than cartoonish.
After the uneasy opening stretch, when Rebecca’s fascination as a character remains in serious doubt, Fisher begins to overcome the script’s silly implausibilities and artificiality by dint of her own resourcefulness and will power. So fine in “Wedding Crashers” and especially “Definitely, Maybe,” Fisher is alive to everything Rebecca might be feeling or wanting at a given moment while also, in the tradition of romantic-comedy greats such as Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, being able to stride imperturbably through any disaster and come out on top.
Dancy aptly opts to coolly underplay opposite his co-star’s vibrant energy, while the able supporting players mostly strike poses and make faces to feed the one-dimensional dynamics. London setting of Kinsella’s first book has been transferred to Gotham with no problem, and lenser Jo Willems, production designer Kristi Zea and, especially, under the circumstances, costume designer Patricia Field (“Sex and the City,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) have gone all out to make the surroundings and garb look alluring.