A love story subtle and rare

Posted: October 28, 2005

In Shopgirl, Claire Danes is Mirabelle Buttersfield, a displaced Vermonter, an artist, a twentysomething salesgirl at the gloves counter on the couture floor of Saks in Beverly Hills. She can stand idle for hours, interrupted by the occasional shopper looking for evening gloves to go with that Oscar de la Renta gown.

And then one day Mirabelle is interrupted by a nice enough man of middle age, apparently out to buy a present for his wife or girlfriend. He's not sure if he should choose gray or black. Steve Martin, subdued and silver-maned, is Ray Porter, the customer in question. Mirabelle and Ray have a pleasant, though hardly extraordinary, exchange. He gets a pair in black. He departs.

A few days later, the gloves arrive at Mirabelle's apartment, with a note inviting her to dinner. Ray has done some stalkerlike snooping to get her name and address, but Mirabelle is intrigued, and a date is made.

A quiet, glistening love story - or not-quite-love story - adapted from Martin's novella of the same name, Shopgirl is such an atypical Hollywood affair that it's almost startling. Deftly directed by Anand Tucker, the Brit who made Hilary and Jackie, and costarring Jason Schwartzman as the third side of the romantic triangle, the film is steeped in a kind of grown-up melancholy.

Its portrait of a young woman finding her way, and herself, in the anonymous metropolis of Los Angeles is fully faceted. The ordinariness of Mirabelle's life - her apartment, her cat, her old pickup - is captured with care, without condescension. She has wit, intelligence and style, but she could just as easily fade into the background. She can seem wise beyond her years one minute, and woo-hoo frivolous the next.

Though Danes' performance is the antithesis of flashy, it deserves to be remembered when Oscar season rolls by.

Even Shopgirl's overtly comic scenes with Schwartzman goofballing around - and in one mistaken-identity seduction, having wild sex with a predatory blonde - reveal something about character. The movie is keenly observed and finely acted. The design and cinematography are exquisite.

Radiant is one of those words that critics - notably male critics - deploy when they're trying to describe an actress' special who-knows-what. Well, Danes, sporting vintage-y outfits and an air of mild lassitude, is radiant in Shopgirl. There are moments when she's captured in a certain light that outdo the artistry of Girl With a Pearl Earring - but there's nothing posed or precious going on here. These are simply the times that Ray is taking in her beauty, or that Mirabelle herself is feeling beautiful.

As for Schwartzman, his character, Jeremy, is anything but beautiful. A furry hipster mess, he's a font designer as inarticulate and impoverished as Ray is well-spoken and rich. (Ray is a software millionaire, a "logician" with a sleek designer house in Beverly Hills, another in Seattle, and a private jet to ferry him from one to the other.)

Jeremy and Mirabelle meet in a Laundromat; their relationship moves ahead in amusing stops and starts, and then gets put on hold when she starts seeing Ray.

Shopgirl is about three people in their own lonely zones, and how each tries to make a connection, bringing their respective wants, needs and self-deceptions to the proceedings. It's delicate stuff, and it's been brought to the screen with grace, humor and a mood that's wonderfully (here comes another of those film review words) bittersweet.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

Shopgirl

*** 1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Ashok Amritraj, Jon Jashni and Steve Martin, directed by Anand Tucker, written by Martin, based on his novella, photography by Peter Suschitzky, music by Barrington Pheloung, distributed by Touchstone Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.

Mirabelle. . . Claire Danes

Ray Porter. . . Steve Martin

Jeremy. . . Jason Schwartzman

Lisa. . . Bridgette Wilson-Sampras

Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

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