Steve Martin's Shopgirl.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Oct. 21 2005 4:58 PM

In the Mood for Moo

Cow eyes and little else in Steve Martin's Shopgirl.

What a treat to see Steve Martin evolve from a spasmodically brilliant comedian into a mature, ruminative, self-critical writer and dramatist. Or maybe not. Come to think of it, the best thing I've seen him do in the last decade is the megalomaniacal uber-nerd "Mr. Chairman" in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. (He even held his own against Bugs and Daffy: no higher praise.) Shopgirl (Touchstone) marks an advance—and a dip—in Martin's creative trajectory. Adapted from his own novella, it's an aching reverie in the tradition of Lost in Translation and In the Mood for Love about the vast distances between people who are locked (or have locked themselves) in their own heads. In other words: All the lonely movies, where do they all come from?

Shopgirl opens with the camera drifting through a Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles—past shoppers and counter-women who are costumed and made-up and shot to suggest whores. (Short skirts, lipstick, perfume, come-hither smiles …) They're meant to contrast with our heroine, the old-fashioned and demure Mirabelle (Claire Danes), who works, appropriately enough, in the ladies'-glove department. (The long, refined kind, for long, refined fingers.) The camera floats toward her in the distance, in the middle of the frame, frozen, her head tilted dreamily, like the Little Match Girl. Who will rescue this forlorn, exquisitely vulnerable waif?

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Not Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a scruffy solipsist who pursues Mirabelle and yet barely registers her, you know, otherness. Maybe her knight is a much older man, Ray Porter (Martin), a wealthy Internet gazillionaire (with dark, expensive suits and a lean silhouette), who lavishes her with expensive meals and clothes—everything but his heart, which belongs to no one, the emotional coward. But Mirabelle, who grew up with an uncommunicative father (by way of demonstration, her father is brought on to not communicate), thinks that this sugar daddy will be a real daddy.

Tweely narrated by Martin (not as Ray), directed with a dose of barbiturates by Anand Tucker, underscored with a plaintive cello and piano, this is among the most noneventful romantic triangles ever committed to celluloid. Martin is a student of Chekhov, and Chekhov is about people who don't connect, right? And Jeremy and Ray seem to be scathing self-portraits, of Martin as a young jerk (or young Jerk) and Martin as a successful older man so scared and self-protective that he never dares come close to true intimacy.

At least Jeremy is finally allowed to evolve beyond his creator. Rejected by Mirabelle, he gets adopted by a touring rock group and eventually makes a lot of noise about learning to be "in the moment." The trouble is that Schwartzman … How can I say this? He's supposed to be weird and repellent, but also—provided he can grow up and forget about himself—kind of attractive. I get everything but the attractive part.

In any case, the best performance is by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as the conniving but peppy slut at the perfume counter. Her big scene—farcical, filthy, surprising—is also the best in the movie. Otherwise, Shopgirl is sadly vacuous, with a sadly vacuous center. Mirabelle is based on a real woman, a lover of Martin's, and the movie is obviously an apology: There you were, this lovely blob of neediness, but all I could see was my own fear of intimacy, and I let you down, and I know I let you down, so let me make it up to you by memorializing your neediness. …

Too bad that Martin gives Mirabelle no interior life, and that Danes obliges by emptying herself of everything but (lyrical, exquisite) need. He still doesn't see her. He sees only his jerkiness. ... 1:40 P.M.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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