Steve Martin, that “wild and crazy guy” from SNL’s heyday, truly has had one of the most eclectic careers in Hollywood. It’s always interesting to see how Martin, who has dabbled in many artistic mediums, can jump from a big-studio comedy to a movie that’s more serious without much industry backlash. Martin, who stars and wrote the screenplay based on his novella, returns to finer form in “Shopgirl.” The film is a mature, perceptive piece of work that should ring true for anyone who recognizes the complexities of relationships and that there are many grey zones one must wade through.

Martin’s story focuses on Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”), an artist who works behind the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. Broke and yearning to feel a connection, Mirabelle meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman, “Bewitched”), an aimless “stenciler” whom she dates briefly. But then the wealthy Ray Porter (Martin) spots her at work and invites her to dinner. The film chronicles the ups and downs of their courtship – one that seems doomed from its inception; Mirabelle desires a tender, long-standing love, while Ray wants something casual.

What makes “Shopgirl” admirable is that it explores relationships the way most movie romances won’t: Its characters and situations are treated realistically. Martin understands that people tend to hold back in relationships and that even when certain emotional needs are defined, their interpretation can be an entirely different matter. “Shopgirl” could have been reduced into a showcase for a love triangle, but Martin knows better – it’s several highly personal and intertwining character studies.

Director Anand Tucker captures the tone of Martin’s script with a somberness and attenuated symbolism, but at times the mood is somewhat magical.

The movie is not without its flaws. Martin does several voice-over narrations, and though they’re well written, they spell out too much of the movie for the audience. Also distracting is one of Mirabelle’s more sexually active co-workers (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, “The Wedding Planner”); Martin may be making a point about one-sided relationships with her character, but her stereotypical presence is pointless in the story.

The movie’s trio of performances are well cast. Danes is perfect, even though she doesn’t really do much other than wallow and act pained. That’s OK, though, because her frumpiness and occasional luminous flash make her relatable and sympathetic. Martin, probably playing himself to a degree, is wonderfully subtle, showing that there’s more to his character than he lets on. Schwartzman is also charming, but only in a goofy and immature manner.

There are humorous moments in “Shopgirl,” but the movie is essentially a drama that knows what love is about; that for all its joys and disappointments, it’s often a bittersweet experience that can come to an untimely end. For once, it’s nice to see a screen romance that isn’t overtaken by fluff and doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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