Shopgirl, the adaptation of Steve Martin’s 2001 novella, is, like its source, a slim, charming, romantic story, full of intentionally mild humor about strong themes—passion, commitment, loneliness. The film is set mostly in the sleek, wealthy areas of Los Angeles that Martin knows well, and he’s clearly comfortable playing Ray Porter, a middle-aged man who’s wealthy and likes fine art and small, precisely worded jokes that are meant to seem throwaway. In other words, Martin’s talk-show persona has merged with his movie image to become one.
The object of Ray’s affections is a scrimping-to-get-by L.A. Saks Fifth Avenue shopgirl named Mirabelle. She’s about three decades younger than Ray and is portrayed by Claire Danes with the same moist-eyed vulnerability and yearning we recall from her great TV series My So-Called Life. When we first glimpse Mirabelle, she’s standing behind the glove counter at Saks, staring dreamily into space. You get to do that a lot when you sell ladies’ long formal gloves in a vast old relic like Saks; there aren’t many customers but plenty of time to contemplate one’s lowly place in the universe—which Mirabelle, who’s having trouble paying $45 a month on a $39,000 student loan, is prone to do.
The challenge of the movie consists of making you believe that these two people, separated by age and status, could fall in love. Shopgirl succeeds in this with a confidence so sure and serene that you feel through much of the movie as though you’re listening to a fairy tale, an effect enhanced by the voice-over narration provided in soothing tones by Martin-as-Ray.
You might think from this description that there will be no surprises in Shopgirl, but Martin, adapting his book and working with director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), has a few tricks up his sleeve. For one thing, Martin is willing to play Ray as a cad, confiding early on to his therapist that he’s not in love with Mirabelle even though she’s clearly gaga over him. It’s his fear of intimacy that prevents such commitment, but Martin uses that cliché to deflect another one: He convinces us that the much-older Ray isn’t a well-dressed lech, a Hollywood Hills Humbert Humbert preying upon a Lolita consigned to a bleak Silverlake apartment. (Coincidentally, Martin’s character, like Bill Murray’s in the recent Broken Flowers, has made his fortune “in computers.” This is, apparently, the 21st-century pop-culture equivalent of being from inherited money, and thus allows the beneficiary to lead a lavish lifestyle without coming off as stuffy, Waspy, or to-the-manner-born.)
Another element of Martin’s cleverness is the presence of an anti-Ray: Jason Schwartzman, who shambles around as Jeremy, a young scrounger who meets Mirabelle in a laundromat and is, when it comes to romance, as clumsy as Ray is smooth. Where Ray’s first romantic gesture is to buy a pair of evening gloves from Mirabelle and then give them back to her in a gift box with a dinner invitation, Jeremy’s idea of a closer on his sloppy, split-the-check first date with Mirabelle is “Could I kiss you, or what?”
Danes gives a marvelously quiet, poignant performance; the artistic success of Shopgirl hinges on the notion that she could be intrigued by two such different men. But the movie also has a subtext—the evolution of Steve Martin’s career—that sometimes threatens to smother the delicate little plot. After all these years, Martin is still trying to live down what brought him his initial fame: his fake-arrow-through-the-head, “wild and crazy guy” character. He’s still a gifted comedian, but he’s lost the unguarded emotionalism that made his performance in 1981’s underrated Pennies From Heaven so moving. Like Woody Allen, Martin has gone the New Yorker route, writing amusing “casuals” whose tamped-down quality is supposed to signal maturity, and he’s done the same thing with his acting, reducing it to witty minimal wariness. Unlike Allen, he’s also set himself up as a doofus-for-hire in mercenary crap like Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen. His funniest performances in recent years, actually, have been as a guest on David Letterman; for these appearances, he prepares elaborate jokes (such as a short film depicting host and guest as former lovers), rather than merely showing up to product-plug.
It’s somewhat brave of Martin to use his latter-day celebrity image as something of a cold fish as the basis for the seriocomic confection that is Shopgirl. But it’s the shopgirl herself—Danes—who makes the movie something really special.