Steve Martin was so successful in the 1970s ' the first standup comedian to play rock arenas ' that he's had to spend the whole rest of his career trying to remove the quotation marks from everything he says or does. Roxanne and L.A. Story, which he both wrote and starred in, revealed a real flair for light romantic comedy, but he hasn't followed up on them...until now. Shopgirl, also set in L.A., began life as a novella, one that kept violating the old rule about showing instead of telling. But in adapting it to the screen, Martin, who also produced the film, has honed his characters into recognizable human beings. And that includes himself. Dedicated to someone named Allyson, the book appears to have been Martin's apologia for allowing a relationship with a much younger woman to dissolve into smog.
The much younger woman, now named Mirabelle, is played by Claire Danes, and she works in the glove department at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, gloves being as old-fashioned as the word "shopgirl." Though an artist with a sense of style all her own, Mirabelle is the opposite of "with it." She has a cat that always hides under the bed, and we're supposed to realize that, in the grand scheme of things, she's the cat hiding under the bed. Then Ray Porter (Martin), a dot-com millionaire, shows up. Ray, who's fiftysomething, isn't looking for anything permanent, but he sees in Mirabelle all the things she's neglecting to show the rest of the world. And she sees in Ray all the things the world's been neglecting to show her. Call it a lack-of-love story.
Directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), Shopgirl has no visual sophistication to speak of, but Barrington Pheloung's score, which borrows freely from the lush minimalism of Arvo PÃrt, gives the movie a fairy-tale charm. And Danes, who appears to have gone all the way back to "My So-Called Life" to find Mirabelle's reluctant eagerness, achieves the winsome melancholy Martin was surely after. Martin himself does a much better job than one might have expected, showing us how a guy could break a woman's heart while conducting himself like a perfect gentleman. And Jason Schwartzman, as a slacker dude who, like the rest of the world, has to learn how to appreciate Mirabelle, throws a series of delightful curveballs. The premise of Shopgirl may be rather shopworn, but the execution is anything but.