American Confessional
There's more to this shopaholic than frivolity.


Nancy French

Sophie Kinsella’s charming novel Confessions of a Shopaholic was written in — and captures the spirit of — the late 1990s, back when people thought about dotcom riches, not Bernie Madoff, and when Citibank was a name on credit cards and not the banking equivalent of the Titanic. The main character, Rebecca Bloomwood, played by the mesmerizing Isla Fisher in the new film, grew up thinking Visa and American Express provided “magic cards” that allowed adults to buy whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. So when she became an adult, she got 12 of these magic cards, rationalized extravagant purchases (I’m saving money if it’s on sale!), and ignored the not-so-magical credit-card statements that came in the mail every month.

Anyone who has had a credit card might identify with this story — and that would be almost all of us. The average family today carries $8,000 in credit-card debt, only slightly less than the sum Rebecca is trying to conquer in the film, and 14 percent of us carry more than ten cards in our wallets. Most Americans went into debt less glamorously than Rebecca Bloomwood — by buying new Cuisinarts and plasma screens, not Hermes scarves or the latest Prada shoes. But honest viewers will wince at Rebecca’s on-screen antics and identify the same disease in themselves — an unwillingness to delay gratification by working hard, saving, and then purchasing. Or, even more radically, not purchasing at all.

Some say producer Jerry Bruckheimer — who spent almost eight years developing this movie — had bad luck with the timing of the release, given the debt bomb that has just detonated in the economy. On the contrary, the current economic malaise makes Shopaholic a much more interesting film.

Right now, who doesn’t hate debt collectors? The villain in Shopaholic is collector Derek Smeath (played by actor Robert Stanton), who pursues Rebecca relentlessly, using persistence and embarrassment to get her to pay her bills. He works in a lifeless, drab cubicle and encourages new collectors to drive their debtors to despair. In fact, this character could have been written by financial guru Dave Ramsey, who constantly warns of credit cards and the unethical behavior of their collectors.

Of course, Ramsey advocates hard work, personal responsibility, and sacrifice to get back on financial track. And this is where the movie asks us to suspend disbelief. The irony of the film is that our shopaholic, an aspiring fashion writer, gets a job at a magazine called Successful Saving. Consequently, she ends up giving (wink-wink) financial advice in a column that sets the city a-talking — apparently a common fantasy of screenwriters, who frequently create characters with oh-so-chic literary careers and fame that spreads like news of the latest bank collapse. She’s supposed to make complex financial issues understandable by using shopping talk, and she apparently pulls this off — though we never get to see any of her columns, which apparently are so spectacular that they immediately result in television appearances. While most viewers can identify with Rebecca’s debt-incurring, her debt-eradication turns out to be an easy and relatively painless movie fix. Many critics bemoan the relative ease from which she extricates herself, but let’s face it: As cute and talented as she is, who wants to see Isla Fisher delivering pizzas on the weekend to pay off her debts one at a time?