Boy meets shopgirl
Characters keep film from falling into typical romantic comedy fare
Steve Martin wrote the screenplay for the film version of his short novel Shopgirl, and he plays one of the main characters in it, too. But even though he is central to the film in several ways, this is not a “Steve Martin film” in the typical and superficial sense of that term.
While it certainly has its elements of comedy, Shopgirl comes across above all as a quirky sort of character drama. The basic premises smack of romantic comedy—a solitary working girl (Claire Danes) is courted, separately and alternately, by both a suave older man (Martin) and a geeky younger guy (Jason Schwartzman). But Martin’s story turns those familiar materials upside down and inside out.
Mirabelle (Danes) is a transplanted Vermonter and aspiring artist working as a sales clerk in the Los Angeles branch of Saks Fifth Avenue. Jeremy (Schwartzman) is a clumsy, immature goofball who works for a sound equipment company and yearns to parlay his position into some kind of roadie work with touring rock bands. Ray Porter (Martin) is a wealthy, divorced businessman with homes in both Seattle and Los Angeles.
In Shopgirl‘s narrative scheme, boy meets girl, girl meets older man, boy loses girl, girl loses older man (and vice versa), boy gets girl back—but without ever achieving anything like the closure of conventional romance, comic or otherwise. And Martin’s script is at its sharpest when it’s both coaxing us into withholding judgment with all three of the characters and taking note of their respective paths toward a fragmented sort of wisdom, one which is both affectionate and rueful.
Martin is the film’s presiding intelligence, a curiously complicated one that beckons from several oblique angles—Ray Porter, the screenplay itself, and the occasional authorial voice-over. But Danes’ Mirabelle is the real heart of the film—with her warm, tentative adventurousness with relationships holding the entire thing together.