Romance Over Gloves

Claire Danes helps Steve Martin's novella 'Shopgirl' finally come to life

I remember picking up Steve Martin's novella Shopgirl, reading a couple of pages, deciding it looked like dreck and putting it right back down. It was some crap about a young woman selling gloves, getting picked up by some old dude. Looked like some sort of older-guy fantasy presented in a weird fairy-tale format.

For years, a film of Martin's book has been kicked around, and it's finally hit theaters with Steve Martin playing the older guy and Claire Danes as Mirabelle (a fairy-tale name if there ever was one), a young artist from Vermont selling gloves in LA's Saks Fifth Avenue who's not all that happy with her predicament.

The movie has left a better impression on me than my admitted snap judgment on the novella. It's hampered by some inappropriate sophomoric humor and a dumb subplot involving a touring rock band, but the story of Mirabelle and her lovers has some interesting moments.

There's something kind of touching and real about the relationships at its core. Mirabelle meets Ray Porter (Martin) at the store, is intrigued by his confidence (and maybe his wallet) and embarks on a relationship with the much-older man to see how things go. Ray, a millionaire who travels a lot, lets her know in slightly veiled terms that he's not looking for a relationship and just wants sex when he's in town. She accepts these terms, but as with most relationships, true feelings and circumstance will eventually lead to complications and emotional turmoil.

Around the same time, Mirabelle meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) a guy closer to her age with mixed, confused ambitions. He claims to be an artist, too (he's a font designer), and he hasn't got much money in his wallet. He is afflicted with a strange sort of charisma, and something about his haphazard approach to dating appeals to Mirabelle.

Martin does a decent job of showing his character's confusion. On one hand, he wants to fully embrace Mirabelle and commit, while on the other, he feels the age difference will eventually doom them. The screenplay (also written by Martin) allows Ray to be somewhat selfish at times, but never evil and uncaring. He's entered into a relationship with Mirabelle with "fun" intentions, yet he's restrained himself right at the start. Ray seems to think that his money and ability to travel will protect him from emotional commitment. One can't help but feel Martin put a little bit of himself in his work.

Danes doesn't get very many good roles to match her talent, and Mirabelle is probably her best screen opportunity yet. She and director Anand Tucker do a terrific job of conveying Mirabelle's boredom at her job and confusion about relationships without belaboring the points. Danes accomplishes much of what the story requires simply with the look on her face.

Schwartzman is a bit overbearing at times as Jeremy. Responsible for most of the film's humor (including a stupid and pointlessly impossible jerk-off joke), he bats about .500. When his character goes on tour with a band (a band that sucks, I might add), the story goes way off course. Had the rock-tour stuff been edited out of the film, it wouldn't have been missed. At one point, Schwartzman, who was allegedly in the running for the role of Who drummer Keith Moon before Mike Meyers landed the part in a film scheduled to be released in 2007, is seen wearing a T-shirt with The Who's The Kids Are Alright emblazoned on it. Perhaps his wild character in Shopgirl was an audition for that coveted role.

Some Martin voiceovers attempt to tie things together, and these feel as if they were lifted from the book. Again, they have a fairy-tale tone, and are just too cutesy to be taken seriously. When Martin and Danes simply act out the complexities of their situation, the film works best. It could've been a very good film, but winds up just slightly north of good.

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