By Joe Lozito
Former "wild 'n' crazy guy" Steve Martin has a romantic streak in him. With "Roxanne", "L.A. Story" and now "Shopgirl", Mr. Martin is injecting a much-needed intelligence into the romantic comedy genre.
Of late it seems in order to classify as a romantic comedy you need to bring down the level of humor to the scatological. I suppose "There's Something About Mary" can be thanked for that. If you want to create an old-fashioned romance, you need to set the film long ago and call Merchant-Ivory. In "Shopgirl", Mr. Martin confounds that problem by setting the film in his own version of L.A.
As we've already seen in "L.A. Story", Mr. Martin has L.A. down pat. In "Shopgirl" like "Story", Mr. Martin's Los Angeles takes on a near fairytale quality. Characters don't interact as much as they bounce off each other like excited molecules. In "Shopgirl", the camera continually drifts from our heroine's modest bedroom in the hip Silverlake section of L.A. to the habitats of her various suitors. And various they are. In fact, they couldn't be more varied.
A member of an older generation remarked recently that if a man tried to court a woman nowadays he'd be accused of stalking. Mr. Martin puts that theory to the test as Ray Porter, one of the men enamored of Mirabelle Buttersworth, a bored clerk in the Saks glove department (and a name you can imagine a smirking Steve Martin pecking into his keyboard). Ray manages to appropriate Mirabelle's home address and sends her a set of her own merchandise with a note simply stating, "I would like to have dinner with you." While some girls would be halfway through dialing 911, Mirabelle is also a romantic at heart and - as the film takes pains proving - desperate.
Mirabelle's other, less-promising romantic interest is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a slacker to end all slackers who creates logos for an amplifier company. Mr. Schwartzman does some of his best work here. It's a tricky role, since Jeremy is made as grotesquely incompetent as Ray is clinically sophisticated. While that's a weakness of the film, Mr. Schwartzman delivers with a character that gets the audience and Mirabelle smiling.
Over the course of the film, which flits from L.A. to Seattle to the bus of a touring rock band, "Shopgirl" becomes less a romantic-comedy than a character study. And it's a refreshing change from the usual forced rom-com complications. As Mirabelle and Ray grow closer, to Mirabelle's surprise and Ray's discomfort, Jeremy learns to get grounded. Where the film goes and how it gets there is the fun part.
Casting Claire Danes as the object of all this affection is a masterstroke. She is simply wonderful. Adjectives like radiant, vibrant and luminous come to mind. Ms. Danes is such a revelation that she almost hurts the film. We want to see her with Mr. Right so badly that neither paramour seems good enough for her. If, as the film suggests, women want to be held with both arms, we yearn to scoop up Mr. Danes and take her away from all that on-screen silliness.
Director Anand Tucker largely stays out of the way, letting the characters do what Mr. Martin's script would have them do. As a writer, Mr. Martin has a surprisingly perceptive ear for the intricacies of romance, and as Ray he gives his most restrained, mature performance. Unfortunately, in adapting the film from his own novella, Mr. Martin inserts a redundant voice-over which works only as a huge buzzkill. While he may be trying to reinforce the fairytale aspect of the film, it's possible he might just be too in love with his own words.
What are the chances that "Shopgirl" will usher in a new, intelligent brand of romantic-comedy, the same way "There's Something about Mary" ushered it out? Slim, I'm afraid. But happily, if there are any old-fashioned romantics left out there - as Mr. Martin clearly bets there are - this is the film for them.