“Shopgirl” is Steve Martin’s screen adaptation of his novella of the same name, and he stars alongside Claire Danes (Romeo + Juliet, Les Misérables, Stage Beauty) and Jason Schwartzman (Slackers, i ♥ huckabees ) in a bittersweet meditation on the hurts and healings one can experience in the search for love. Martin here shows a deft hand at streamlining ever so slightly the themes and actions of his novella, which was exceedingly introspective and intellectualized too much too often.

Mirabelle (Danes) works at the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, in a part of the store that can only be described as so secluded it’s almost forgotten. This fact underlines her sense of isolation from the world. She’s an artist who sells a few drawings once in a while, a transplant from her native Vermont and a sufferer of depression, for which she takes medication. From the movie’s narration (Martin going through it as an omniscient presence unrelated to the character he plays), we gather that what Mirabelle yearns for the most is for somebody to care about her. The narration is a device that could easily be didactic, but it’s used sparingly enough to be valuable and interesting instead of sounding hollow.

Anybody who’s ever loved (and possibly lost) can empathize with Mirabelle’s longing, and perhaps that’s what draws us in when Jeremy, an unkempt and slightly weird young man, says a brusque but heartfelt “Hey! I mean, Hello” to her one day, out of the blue, at a Laundromat. A tale could be spun with just those two in it, but things are expanded, meaning severely complicated, when wealthy computer entrepreneur Ray Porter (Martin) shows up at her counter and buys a pair of gloves. He sends them back to her as a gift along with an invitation for dinner. She accepts. It leads to more dates. Those dates lead to sex. He lavishes her with magnificent clothes, even paying off her substantial student loans, while she glows from the feeling of finally being important to someone.

But there’s an insidious problem in their relationship. A speech is made, wishful interpretations of it differ strongly, and then later sensibilities are really hurt. There’s a scene among others that tells us a lot about Ray Porter. As she can hardly believe she’s having an Armani dress fitted for her, Ray is nonchalantly leafing through a catalog. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment, but it helps demonstrate that while she may very well be in love, for him love is that door he’s right in front of but whose handle he cannot muster the will, or courage, to turn.

Meanwhile, Jeremy is on the road with a rock band to promote his company’s amplifiers (he designs the logos which appear on them). Happenstance puts him in contact with self-help and meditative books and tapes, and surprisingly enough this just might help him polish his off-kilter appearance and personality. It’s all handled in a very mature fashion by Martin’s script and perceptively captured by director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie). This is a story that’s well served by a superb performance by Danes, a solid one by Martin, especially in the film’s second half, and a quietly tone-perfect one by Schartzman. Martin once played romantic hopefuls around the mid-80s and early 90s (The Lonely Guy, Roxanne, L.A. Story), and this is definitely a change of pace after his recent roles in films like Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen. Danes, who has the widest scope of emotions, is a gorgeous ray of light, equal parts vulnerable but strong, hurt but resolute. And Schwartzman makes us believe that Jeremy can indeed be “an OK guy, by the way”, and then some, as he tells Mirabelle that day at the Laundromat.

I’d be at fault not to mention the inspired use of Dusty Springfield’s catchy “I only want to be with you” tune and the evocative, if a bit heavy-handed, score by Barrington Pheloung. There’s also a distant echo of Lost in Translation in the ending, and that’s a good thing in my book. “Shopgirl” is ultimately about life, and it’s a touching film about its complexity, the bumps on the road and the rewards along the way.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay