03/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shopaholic Made Me Want to Buy a Scarf

Early in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Isla Fisher gazes into a store window at a glistening, diaphanous, emerald-green scarf, (the ultra-long kind that did Isadora Duncan in) and knows that if she buys it, it will change her life. We know that if she reaches for her credit card it will lead to disaster --- she can't afford it, she's late for a job interview. But the scarf looked so enticing, her belief that it would give her the confidence to conquer the world was so absolute, that I felt desperate to own it too and I can't even wear green. All I can say is, when I walked out of that movie it's a good thing I was facing tacky Times Square T-shirt stores instead of Bendel's.

"Go out and spend" is not meant to be the message of Shopaholic. The comedy about Rebecca (Fisher's character), compulsive shopper and would-be journalist, was filmed before the current economic disaster, but superficially it couldn't be more attuned to today's crisis. Rebecca is laid off from a gardening magazine that folds. And as she and her roommate sit down to face their budget, we hear a line that should resonate with millions across the country: "I'll get the tequila, you get the bills." Soon Rebecca goes to work at a money magazine, learns to stop spending beyond her means and, fairy-tale fashion, is rewarded with Hugh Dancy. (This is so predictable it can't possibly count as a spoiler.)

So the movie's ostensible message is balance-the-budget. But what it's really saying, with utter conviction, is that we lust after beautiful things and sometimes just have to have them (scarf, Hugh Dancy, whatever). Why the dissonance?

You could, and some op-ed columnists probably will, strain to find parallels between Rebecca's situation and the state of our economy. Even with her credit crunch, though, the echoes don't carry beyond the befuddled sense that we're in over our heads and have no clue how we got there. What's wrong is that Shopaholic is one more dishonest film that ends with a tacked-on lesson at odds with everything we've just seen. Rebecca buys the scarf and it does change her life. At her new job she writes a fantastically successful column under the pen name "The Girl in the Green Scarf."

Beyond the cliché that shopping is fun, the movie has stumbled across its true, valuable lesson, the absolutely essential idea that what seems like recklessness or self-indulgence is sometimes the expression of the wild ambition and total self-confidence it takes to succeed. That message is useful even -- maybe especially -- in these days of economic tsunami, when daring is so likely to be lost.

That doesn't mean Shopaholic is a very good film. It's by-the-numbers bland. And it would have been more fun if it hadn't insisted on teaching some Suzy Ormond lesson about money management. (Of course there's a difference between compulsive shopping and occasional indulgence, but no need to burden a frothy movie with that.)

Unintentionally, the movie plays like its ridiculous scenes at a Shopaholics Anonymous meeting, when Rebecca inspires the group to run out and buy. That's fine, because Shopaholic is a fantasy that, no matter what it pretends to say, sneaks in the priceless idea that being frugal isn't the same as being timid and fearful, that sometimes you have to go for the green scarf.