Hurry Up and Waste

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“Confessions of a Shopaholic” is based on one of those ubiquitous “pink books” you see on bookstore display tables with whimsical sketches of modern young women on their pink and white dust jackets. Usually set in Manhattan, these pseudoautobiographical stories reveal the joys and foibles of trying to find success in the tantalizing but shark-infested waters of publishing (usually for fashion magazines) or entertainment (usually as assistant producers).

In “Confessions,” the protagonist, Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), dreams of becoming a fashion writer for “Alette,” a knock off of “Vogue.” When her first interview doesn’t work out, she applies for a job at the magazine’s sister publication, “Successful Saving,” hoping to be transferred to “Alette” from within the company. Ironically, lovable Becky knows nothing about saving, having maxed out all of her credit cards by purchasing closets full of high couture fashions and accessories.

In fact, Rebecca proudly defends her credit-card sprees by explaining, “I earn 10 k back on everything I buy!” How’s that for successful saving? Somehow it works and she lands the job, googling her way through research projects to popular success.

The film is formulaic to a fault: boy-meets-girl under the obligatory false pretense; they break up when the pretense comes to light, just before she is going to confess it to him; they reunite as she rejects a financially lucrative but somehow morally reprehensible job offer from the company that has been her lifelong dream. (Being financially responsible doesn’t seem popular in Hollywood right now.) Modern romantic comedies such as this one trace their lineage to the great madcap movies of the 1930s (”It Happened One Night” being the best), but the formula is beginning to wear thin.

Moreover, veteran actors John Goodman, Joan Cusack, Lynn Redgrave, and Kristen Scott Thomas are wasted in cartoonish performances that have to be blamed on P.J. Hogan’s heavy-handed direction. The film is simply not very good.

Nevertheless, it is worth viewing – or at least discussing – as a parable for modern life, when easy credit and consumer spending have nearly bankrupted the nation. “They didn’t need money. They had magic cards!” Rebecca gushes about her childhood discovery of credit. Her naivete is matched by our modern Congress, which has discovered the “magic” of creating money by “selling bonds” – a clever euphemism for deficit spending, which is itself a euphemism for borrowing money.

Rebecca is able to continue her spending sprees in the way Congress finances its own sprees – by using other people’s money. When she loses her first job before landing her new one, her roommate and best friend Suze (Krysten Ritter) generously tears up the rent check Rebecca has just given her. Then, lest we feel sorry for Suze, she adds, “It’s my parents’ apartment anyway.” Like Congress, she sees nothing wrong with forcing those who have saved and invested to bail out those who have borrowed and consumed. Predictably, Rebecca responds to her friend’s generosity by gushing, “I’m going to buy you the best gift!” Rebecca also turns to her parents for help. She does everything except stop spending.

The film highlights several tricks of those on the edge of solvency. For example, when her coworkers purchase a group gift for a retiring employee, Rebecca gathers all the cash and puts the purchase on her credit card. By the time her statement comes, of course, the money has been spent. In another scene, she buys a $120 scarf by charging it in increments of $10-$30 to five different, nearly maxed-out cards and bumming the final $20 from a complete stranger at a hot dog stand. She does this with the perky pride and feisty determination that are endemic to the genre.

Hounded by debt collectors, Rebecca decides to rid herself of “toxic assets” by selling all her clothes, shoes, and accessories. But unlike most garage sale impresarios, whose assets are sold at pennies on the dollar, Rebecca manages to rake in enough dough to payoff all her debts – a whopping “sixteen thousand, twelve hundred dollars, and change.” (Why it isn’t simply $17,200 111 never know – but that alone demonstrates how little the writers understand about money.)

Many compulsive shoppers suffer from depression; they use shopping to give them a short-lived lift. In one revealing scene, Rebecca exudes, “When I shop the world gets better.” Then she adds seriously, “And then it’s not anymore.” One of my roommates in college was like that. Lonely and depressed, she went shopping nearly every day. Periodically she would grow disgusted with her binge spending and initiate a purge, selling everything she owned at a fraction of its cost. Days later, depressed about school and realizing that she literally had “nothing to wear,” she would pull out daddy’s credit cards to go shopping again.

Rebecca has a similar attitude. By the end of the film she has used up all her credit with her banks, her parents, and her friends. But does that end her spending sprees? Au contraire! After turning down a lucrative job for ludicrous reasons, she hooks a wealthy sugar daddy (Hugh Dancy), who “speaks Prada” and returns to her first passion: fabulous shoes. Like Obama, she has figured out how to buy what she wants and stick it to the wealthy. Watch out ants! The grasshoppers are now running the show.

All of this could have created a humorous, revealing, cautionary tale, if Rebecca actually sacrificed pleasures to get out of debt and eventually learned something from her experience. But although she does acknowledge that she has a problem, she never overcomes it. In fact, she revels in it, like a dog in poo. With millions of Americans losing their hard-earned savings while being forced to bail out those who took on too much debt, this simply is not the right time for a film that celebrates waste.

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