2½ stars (out of four)
Claire Danes was not yet of driving age when she starred in the TV series "My So-Called Life" and made her second feature film, Gillian Armstrong's remake of "Little Women." The latter came out in late 1994 and caused people to wonder who this phenom was, the one handling sickly young Beth March with such quiet assurance. Actors are born with a unique set of assets: what they look like. Then there is everything else: Talent, tact, nerve and dancing ability, the dance partners being many, beginning with the role and ending with the camera.
With her limpid saucer eyes and the good sense not to bat them recklessly, Danes has come through her share of dreck in the last decade. But "Shopgirl," set in a grandly romanticized Los Angeles, affords her a real showcase, and she's spectacularly good in it.
She's far better than the film, in fact. Danes, who does more with a wary or puzzled smile than most performers can do with an Oscar-baiting monologue, makes an uneven film worth seeing. This is the definitionmine, anywayof a 21/2-star movie, halfway between fair and good, in this instance an overscaled enterprise grounded by a performance among the year's best.
Written by and co-starring Steve Martin, adapted from Martin's 2000 novella, "Shopgirl" is a bookend to Martin's earlier, more antic L.A. story, the one called "L.A. Story." Danes plays Mirabelle, one of countless young searchers not yet 30, looking for a niche and a connection in a landscape of glittering loneliness. An emigre from Vermont, she lives in an apartment in the hills of the Silver Lake neighborhood and works in the glove department at Saks, a few miles and several economic time zones away in Beverly Hills. She pursues her photography on her own time, while awaiting the relationship to elevate her experience above "a pile of near-misses."
At the laundromat one day she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a scruffy geek who doesn't seem likely to elevate her any which way. Still, why not? Thus begins a tentative relationship, consisting mostly of Jeremy going Dutch and talking about T-shirt design. Then one day at the glove counter Mirabelle meets Ray Porter (Martin), who exchanges some pleasantries, buys a pair of gloveshe later sends them to her as a gift--and asks her to dinner.
A businessman of vague but lucrative skills, Ray travels a great deal. Mirabelle is swept away by their courtship. Ray is as well, though he has an arm's-length way about him, as if apologizing for the end of the affair while in the middle of it. He wants Mirabelle in his life, yet safely out of the range of serious commitment.
As "Shopgirl" traces the three sides of this triangle, Jeremy embarks on the road with a band as a means to becoming a better man, worthy of Mirabelle. Schwartzman, star of the lovely comedy "Rushmore," goes all the way into his own extreme realms of dorkitude in "Shopgirl." Too much so? Probably. There's something about Schwartzman's timing that plays havoc with his fellow performers. You have to hand it to him, though: He does not curry audience favor, even when a little wouldn't hurt.
Martin, playing a man whose coolly genial surface masks an elusive heart, knows from recessive emotional types. They are not the easiest types to bring to life in a movie, and while Martin does some of the most relaxed acting of his career in "Shopgirl," Raytoo good to be true, even in his stubborn emotional reserveremains fuzzy around the edges.
Playing a different, more nerve-endy sort of recessive character, Danes brings out the best and truest material "Shopgirl" has to offer. She creates a plaintive screen incarnation of a woman who, without her artistic and intellectual pursuits, would fall headlong into what might be called L.A.'s decorative class. In her scenes with Schwartzman, she works in one set of rhythms and keysIs this guy OK? Is he worth the investment? With Martin, she switches gears, her "Whatcha doin', Mister?" banter revealing a bittersweet insecurity.
On the page "Shopgirl" was a small but fine Chekhovian thing, coasting along on Martin's omniscient narration and witty prose. Its appeal was no surprise to fans of Martin's earlier work, especially his pieces for The New Yorker (later gathered for the "Pure Drivel" collection). The movie version of "Shopgirl," directed by Anand Tucker, locates roughly half of what worked in the novella. Tucker makes everything a little too big, favoring an epic, fable-like visual treatment of Martin's story. The aisles of Saks, the starry L.A. skiesstars? They can see stars in L.A.? This is a fantasy!the Pygmalion aspect to the Ray and Mirabelle romance: All is heightened and stylized. The approach overloads the story. The worst offender is composer Barrington Pheloung, whose music is gushingly string-intensive and designed to transform the inner lives of Little People into another dimension. In hurricane terms, it's a Category 5 musical score.
A film closer to the scale and visual intimacy of "Lost in Translation" would've made a better fit for "Shopgirl." Danes, however, lends the film considerable emotional amplitude and that most elusive of all screen traits: charm.
Directed by Anand Tucker; screenplay by Steve Martin, based on his novella; cinematography by Peter Suschitzky; production design by William Arnold; music by Barrington Pheloung; edited by David Gamble; produced by Ashok Amritraj, Jon Jashni and Steve Martin. A Touchstone Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: R (for some sexual content and brief language).
Ray Porter - Steve Martin
Mirabelle - Claire Danes
Jeremy - Jason Schwartzman
Lisa Cramer - Bridgette Wilson-Sampras