Falling in Love with 'Shopgirl'

Critic Bob Mondello reviews the new movie Shopgirl, starring Steve Martin and Claire Danes. Martin wrote the novella on which the film is based. And despite Martin's reputation for zaniness, Shopgirl turns out to be a low-key romance for grown-ups.

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Many people still associate Steve Martin with the `wild and crazy guy' comedy of his early days on "Saturday Night Live." But Martin has also written dozens of essays and short stories, two plays and six books. He has now adapted his own short novel, "Shopgirl," for the screen. And our critic, Bob Mondello, says that it is a romance for grownups.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

In Steve Martin's novel, Mirabelle, the shopgirl of the title, is said to be beautiful in a wallflowerish sort of way. Played by Claire Danes in the film, there's no way she's going to look wallflowerish, but she does seem lost and lonely behind her counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she sells the sort of delicate, long women's gloves that almost no one wears anymore.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Ms. CLAIRE DANES: (As Mirabelle) Would you like to see something?

Mr. STEVE MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Yeah. Those gray ones and those black ones.

I don't know. What do you think?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Well, depends on the dress. What color's the dress?

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Um, I'll just--I'll just get the gray ones.

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Safe.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Safe? Why, do you think the black?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) I like the black.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) OK. I'll take the black.

MONDELLO: Mirabelle glides from work every day into a less elegant world: her modest LA apartment, worries about paying back student loans, trips to the Laundromat. It's at the Laundromat one night that she meets a scruffy guy named Jeromy, played by Jason Schwartzman.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) Where do you work?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Saks. Where do you work?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) Oh, you know Holy Dog amplifiers(ph)? I do their logo. I'll show you.

MONDELLO: He rolls up his sleeves.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) This is my favorite one. I've called this font Los Angeles. ...(Unintelligible) by the way.

MONDELLO: Jeromy is the kind of diamond in the rough who will require a lot of polishing to be even presentable. But Mirabelle is lonely enough to consider taking on the job until those black gloves she sold at Saks are presented to her as a gift by the guy who bought them.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Who are you?

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Good point. I'm Ray Porter. Hi. How are you?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Hi.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Look, I know you can't be seen chatting up customers, so why don't you just meet me Friday for dinner at 8:00. You don't even have to give me your phone number. You can just show up, and if you don't, I'll just eat alone.

MONDELLO: But she does show up.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Need some date questions. Where's your family live?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Vermont.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) OK. Be honest, maybe, if this were a TV dating show, would I be kicked off already and you'd be on to the next guy?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) You'd still be on the show.

MONDELLO: If Jeromy is a diamond in the rough, Ray is a diamond with a flaw, a smart, wealthy, thoroughly charming Prince Charming who shrinks from closeness and commitment. Steve Martin is nicely subdued in the role, an effect that's getting his performance compared to Bill Murray's performance in "Lost in Translation." And, in fact, "Shopgirl" has the same air of wistfulness to it, at least when Schwartzman's appealingly goofy Jeromy isn't around to hijack scenes from the stars. That's partly because of a lush, string-heavy score by Barrington Pheloung that saturates the film, sort of Philip Glass on Prozac.

(Soundbite of score from "Shopgirl")

MONDELLO: And it's partly because the Cinderella-ish aspects of the story could apply to all three of the leading characters. The film's not deep, particularly, but it does get at notions of how age and wealth and power figure in romantic relationships. And at how people change, which can throw those other things out of balance. Though she projects a certain fragility, Claire Danes is so radiant as Mirabelle that you may find yourself wondering why she's bothering with either of the somewhat wounded guys the story throws her way, and also why Steve Martin thought he needed novelistic voiceovers to say what the performances are already making pretty clear. But credit director Arnand Tucker with finding an eery sort of stillness in bustling Los Angeles and with translating "Shopgirl" into a bittersweet screen romance that's every bit as elegant as its leading lady.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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