The story goes that a young Smiths fan was so devastated by news of the band’s 1987 breakup that he drove to a Denver radio station with a loaded pistol and a harebrained plan to make the DJ broadcast literary mope-rock all night long. It’s a lot easier to say “please, please, please let me get what I want” with a gun in your hand. Being a Smiths fan, however, our heartbroken hero was too sensitive to point a gun at someone; if meat is murder, then murder would really be murder. So he sat in his car, sang “I Know it’s Over,” and turned himself in to the local police station where he could wallow in a cell worthy of his mood.
“Based on true intentions” (a real “uh oh” of an opening title card), Stephen Kijak’s long-gestating “Shoplifters of the World” essentially wonders what might’ve happened if that kid hadn’t started something he couldn’t finish. A halcyon ode to being young and feeling everything so intensely that only Morrissey could ever understand you, Kijak’s film unpacks that fateful night into one of those ensemble comedies about the end of an era; one that so cringingly tries to split the difference between Julie Taymor and John Hughes that it winds up feeling about as true to the spirit of The Smiths as buying “The Queen Is Dead” at Urban Outfitters.
A portion of viewers might be tickled by the Zodiac-worthy mesh of references that Kijak encrypts into the dialogue (the movie doesn’t have a screenplay so much as a spoken libretto of song lyrics), and it’s rare for such an earnest story to explore how “being yourself” is often synonymous with cosplaying as someone else — a fact of life that was as true for young Smiths fans in the 1980s as it is for old Morrissey in the here and now. Supermarket cashier Cleo (Helena Howard) is basically the coolest person in town, and her entire identity is just “girl who worships The Smiths.” Then again, even the town itself isn’t entirely sure what it’s supposed to be; in a film where the performances range from passable to magnetic, Kijak’s only real misfire was casting upstate New York in the role of Denver, Colorado.
At least he got the humans right. Too right, in some cases. “Madeline’s Madeline” breakout Helena Howard — whose self-possessed genius is even easier to appreciate in a movie that lacks any of its own — is so alive and bleeding with music that Cleo’s scenes can feel like watching Johnny Marr jam with a Smiths cover band. She almost single-handedly wills some truth into the mutual crush that forms between Cleo and Dean, the gun-toting dreamboat who works behind the counter at her local music store. He’s played by “Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane, his winsome proto-“Empire Records” vibe all wrong for a “Never Had No One Ever” Morrissey type. But this 84-minute wisp of a movie only has time to give them two scenes together.
Cleo spends most of her night trying to make some memories with Billy (Nick Krause), her gender-questioning friend who enlisted in “Reagan’s Army” to satisfy his old man’s idea of masculinity, and is scheduled to report for duty the next day. Their Madonna-mad friend Sheila (Elena Kampouris) and her curiously celibate beau Patrick (James Bloor) also tag along for the party-hopping. “The Breakfast Club” approach to sorting these characters into archetypes is unrewarding, and there’s no trace of the personal connection that everyone brings to their most passionate fandom.
Elsewhere, in the plot thread that inspired the movie but still feels like it’s fraying away from it, Dean takes the airwaves hostage, and meathead DJ Full Metal Mickey (producer Joe Manganiello) along with them. These scenes are the stuff of ultra-sincere treacle, as Dean acts like his life is over while Mickey — whose Ozzy worship belies a sage-like wisdom — insists that bands die all the time, but their music lives forever. Kijak struggles to find the right line between silly and sincere here, just as he struggles to find the right line between real and enchanted everywhere else, but nobody owns their goofiness better than Manganiello. The guy managed to seem like he was having fun in a Zack Snyder movie; he doesn’t have any trouble doing it here. In a kitschy time capsule that often lacks the courage of its convictions, it’s a blast to watch him swing for the fences.
“Shoplifters of the World” also has its more timeless charms. A wall-to-wall soundtrack of Smiths tunes certainly makes this an easier pill to swallow for anyone who loves the music enough to tune out the context, but the rare moments when “Shoplifters of the World” isn’t tripping over its own cutesy fan service reveal a movie that’s listening for the real and mysterious friction that has always transmuted suicidal music into its own kind of salvation. It’s the same friction that gave us emo, or the blues, or “Creep.” One line in Kijak’s awkward script so knowingly anticipates the next wave of British alienation that you can imagine someone making this exact same movie about a group of dispossessed Radiohead fans 10 years later. Here’s hoping that no one does.
“Shoplifters of the World” is now playing in theaters and on VOD from RJLE Films.
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