Steve Martin makes broad-based family entertainment like "Bringing Down the House," but he also has a history of making the occasional personal film like "Roxanne" or "L.A. Story." Not coincidentally, he writes the personal stuff himself. His new film, "Shopgirl," which he also scripted and stars in, is based on his popular novella, which makes it a very personal affair indeed.
Although it has some marvelous comic moments, "Shopgirl" is far from a comedy. Martin plays Ray Porter, a dotcom millionaire with fancy homes in Los Angeles and Seattle and a private jet. Shopping for gloves in Saks in Beverly Hills one day, he takes a fancy to a winsome salesgirl, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), and successfully woos her. It doesn't take much.
Mirabelle is a stay-at-home type from rural Vermont who feels disconnected in the L.A. sprawl. An aspiring artist still struggling to pay off her college loans, she seems primed for a Prince Charming. For a while she endures the attentions of the immature, overaggressive Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), but once she meets Ray it's showtime.
What gives the film its fascination is that, contrary to the usual older-man/younger-woman scenario, "Shopgirl" doesn't haul out the hearts and flowers. Ray is far from a lout with Mirabelle, but he makes it clear early on that he is interested only in seeing her for sexual companionship when he is in town. Mirabelle wants Ray to love her, but it's never clear just how large a capacity for love he has.
Although "Shopgirl" is framed as a valentine to Mirabelle's romantic fortitude, what we see onscreen is often at odds with that interpretation. For one thing, it's not really believable that someone who looks as good as Mirabelle - Vermont or no Vermont - would be pining at home with her cat. Not in Beverly Hills anyway. (The director, Anand Tucker, offers her up almost as a Depression-era waif.)
Mirabelle's loving attachment to Ray is presented almost entirely as a selfless act of innocence, but we're left wondering why more isn't made of the fact that Ray showers her with expensive gifts and pays off her student loan. Is it too cynical to suggest that his generosity might have something to do with her devotion? In the world of this movie, the guileless Mirabelle is simply the angelic beneficiary of her suitor's blessings.
Ray's melancholia, like hers, is ultimately meant to have romantic depths. He is fated to break up with her because she's too young for him and he cares too much to let things go on. But what we observe in Ray's steely eyes and rote courtesies is something else again. Whether intentionally or not, Martin has given us something truly spooky: A full-fledged portrait of a hollow man. Grade: B
• Rated R for some sexual content and brief language.