Shopgirl presents itself as a modern, thoughtful rumination on today's dating scene, and posits the idea - hard for some people to accept, I'm sure - that the best person out there may not be the best person for you.
All of which is wonderful fodder for a sensitive comedy film offering finely tuned insights into the 21st-century human condition. But there's a central dishonesty to Shopgirl that undercuts much of what the film is trying to do and renders moot much of what it is trying to say.
Claire Danes is the title character, working the glove counter at Saks and daydreaming about a romance she has yet to find. Shy and introspective, with no idea of how attractive or appealing she is, Mirabelle (her name is Italian for "beautiful sight") sees herself as one of those people destined to go through life making nary a ripple.
Others disagree, however. First among them is good-hearted but clueless Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an arrested adolescent for whom nirvana is staring at a movie theater's marquee, since that way, he doesn't have to worry about paying to get in. Jeremy takes to Mirabelle right away. Reluctantly, Mirabelle gives in and the two stumble into the beginnings of a relationship.
But then Ray Porter (Steve Martin, who also wrote the screenplay and the book on which it's based) slides into the picture, and all bets are called. He's older, he's rich, and he's got perfect taste. And, to Mirabelle's amazement, he wants her.
Seems poor Jeremy doesn't stand a chance.
Ray is supposed to be something of a sleaze, a handsome older guy taking advantage of a young, pretty, vulnerable girl. She sees their relationship as genuine, possibly developing into something long term. He sees it as a middle-aged fling.
Perhaps understandably, Martin refuses to play Ray as anything but sympathetic; he may be a lech, but he's the nicest, most admirable lech there's ever been. He never acts as though his feelings for Mirabelle are less than genuine.
Martin's script offers plenty of opportunities, but Martin the actor never takes advantage of them. There's a big hubbub made over Ray's admission that he slept with someone else while seeing Mirabelle; Ray says he couldn't live with himself if he kept it secret. But if he's really just using her, as he insists, then why bother telling her about such a dalliance?
There's also an unnecessary subplot, in which Mirabelle's man-hungry co-worker (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) connives to steal Ray, but ends up with Jeremy instead. The scene serves no narrative purpose, and isn't all that funny, either.
None of the above, however, takes away from the acting on- screen. Martin's unshakeable polish has never been put to better use (there's nothing comedic about his performance), while Schwartzman knows all about playing lost, perplexed, but adorable.
The real star, however, is Danes, who's never been better. Beautiful in a way she can't comprehend, resilient in a way she never fully appreciates, Mirabelle demands a precarious balancing act. Danes, acting with great subtlety, never forces anything, creating a character that's all about unrealized possibilities. It's unfortunate the movie can't be as honest as her performance.
Shopgirl (Touchstone Pictures)
Starring Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Anand Tucker
Time 104 minutes