Based on Sophie Kinsella's best-selling novels, Confessions of a Shopaholic revolves around stylish-but-not-necessarily-wise journalist Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), who loves … shopping. When Rebecca's out in the world, every store is an invitation, every sale a happening; mannequins literally whisper to her to buy what they're selling. Rebecca loves to shop, and she's good at it, picking perfect ensembles; she's just not so good at paying off her purchases. …
And this is the weird disconnect at the heart of Confessions of a Shopaholic; it wants to wag a chiding finger at Rebecca for her spendthrift ways and still give her a thumbs-up for her fashion sense. (At the Confessions of a Shopaholic advance screening I attended, there was a fashion show before the movie sponsored by a local boutique; to me, it was like watching someone do exhibition drinking games before a screening of Leaving Las Vegas.) Confessions of a Shopaholic wants to be about a situation, not about a character or a reality; it wants to lure you in with the promise of relief during tough times, not scare you away with any talk about how really tough times are.
Directed by P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding), Confessions of a Shopaholic could be a comedy with some truth to it; instead, it's a comedy that consistently, deliberately takes every shortcut it can along the path of least resistance towards the happy ending. I'm not saying that Confessions of a Shopaholic had to be a gritty, grim indie movie — although, when Fisher's in a state of rapture explaining how ' … when I shop, the world gets better. The world is better … and then it's not anymore …" you glimpse the ugly swelling of something sick behind the smiles and costume changes. If Confessions had dug into that, lanced that boil behind the glamorous face of spending and consumerism, who knows? It might have been funnier. It might have been more real. It certainly would have felt less disposable.
Instead, we're told that Rebecca lives rent-free with her best friend in an apartment owned by her best friend Suze's parents — or, rather, when Rebecca loses her job, her plucky best pal Suze (Krysten Ritter) tears up her rent check and says Rebecca's off the hook for a while; that's certainly convenient. As is the nest egg Rebecca's parents (Joan Cusack and John Goodman) consistently speak of. Equally convenient is Rebecca tumbling into a columnist's job at a financial magazine under her hunky new boss Luke (Hugh Dancy), where despite her lack of background with, or interest in, finance, she's a smash success.
In fact, watching Fisher and Dancy in this film is like watching two Olympic divers hurl themselves off the highest possible board into a child's wading pool; their technique is impeccable, their commitment is unswerving, but their destination is perhaps not the best place for their passion to be directed. Director Hogan fills the film with candy colors, and Patricia Fields — who also costume-designed Sex and the City — makes every outfit look beautiful and pretty … which is fine, until you realize that Confessions of a Shopaholic won't really make Rebecca suffer, not anything worse than the mild complications of the modern romantic comedy, anyhow.
And I grew up Catholic, so I seem to recall something about confession requiring penance and contrition; thing is, we don't really see Rebecca repent in this Confession, and we don't see her lose anything that matters in her journey to wisdom, and we watch her get rescued by a decision and action she could have made, and done, at any point prior. Why didn't Rebecca think of this mechanism before things got so bad? Because then we wouldn't have a movie, which is the worst possible reason you can have for the timing of a major plot turn in a film's script.
But when Fisher and Dancy, in designer clothes, finally kissed in a garden looking over the New York cityscape, the four women sitting in front of me gave a big "Awwww …" — which is, of course, what they were supposed to do at that point. Is that credit to Dancy and Fisher's charm? Probably — if anything makes Confessions at all watchable, it's them. Director Hogan may made very different kinds of comedies earlier on — Muriel's Wedding is weird in ways Confessions isn't, and the wonderfully funny-but-not-fake My Best Friend's Wedding (a film that in many ways saved Julia Roberts' career) is dark and real in ways that Confessions doesn't even try to be. With Confessions, it feels like Hogan and Fisher and Dancy are all doing work beneath their talents, because just like its lead character, Confessions of a Shopaholic aspires to make money and look great at the same time. It's a mixed message, at best, and a pretty-but-empty envelope at worst.