Considering that he was last seen in that art-house classic, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Steve Martin's appearance in Shopgirl is something of a curiosity. In the film, based on his own 2001 novella, Martin shies away from both of his best-known personas: the guileless silly billy of The Man With Two Brains and The Jerk, and the lovable dad in such bargain-bucket family films as Parenthood and Father of the Bride. Instead, Shopgirl emerges as a brave attempt to play it straight and play it credible. It so much wants to be a Nineties indie film, full of thrift-shoppy fashion and transient relationships, that you expect to walk out and discover that Kurt Cobain is still alive. Still, for an actor already past 60, this tale of urban alienation, on-the-road rock'n'roll and youthful self-discovery promises a surprising stab at hip reinvention.
Unfortunately, however, Martin has ultimately chosen to reinvent himself in rather creepy fashion. After all those years playing fathers - of the bride or otherwise - you can see why he needed a change, but opting for the dubious "father figure" seems a mistake. Martin plays Ray Porter, a millionaire "logician" who lives in sterile magnificence in Los Angeles. One day, he crosses paths with Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), a twentysomething shop assistant who is struggling with big-city life after moving from Vermont.
You know she is a serious girl, as she wears heavy-rimmed glasses for driving, owns a cat called Sylvia and reads proper books in bed. She works on the glove counter at Saks and watches the rich couples and ladies who lunch floating through her universe, unable to connect with anyone except the unpromisingly flaky Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a font designer for an amplifier company who has the sex appeal of Kermit and the personal habits of a chimp. One day, however, she helps Porter buy a pair of black gloves and later arrives home to find them in a parcel on her doorstep. With one gift, she begins a relationship with this glamorous man and, yes, the course of her whole life changes.
For most women, finding a pair of black gloves on their doorstep would signal "Boston Strangler" rather than "man of my dreams!" and it is this sense of unintentional creepiness that asphyxiates Shopgirl. Martin seems to have succumbed to the "First Law of Woody Allen", which states that a young girl will always be attracted to an older man. Second law: she will probably have a few picturesque mental problems to amplify her romantic unpredictability.
Alarm bells ring when Danes makes her first appearance leaning over the glove counter like another expensive accessory; what's equally irritating is that Mirabelle can't be just a "shopgirl" - she must be an aspiring artist, too. Because TB is no longer seen as a dreamy way to make a girl look pale, she also has a run-in with antidepressants, from which the uptight Ray saves her. She takes photographs of her-self running into the darkness in a white nightie, or lying inscrutably naked on her bed. There are times when a shot of her floating downriver in a diaphanous dress, clutching a posy of wild flowers, seems only moments away.
Danes gives a lovely, luminous and impressively controlled performance, but there is still a sense that her sudden smiles and quivering hopefulness make her little more than a cipher for the dreaded feminine mystique. Making her a gold-digger might have been diverting - after all, it's impossible to fathom what she sees in the implacable Ray - but instead there is the unpalatable idea that she needs this remote older man to break her heart and thus give her the "gift" of maturity and knowledge. A new dress probably would have done. It's an impression emphasised by Ray/Martin's occasional ungainly voice-over - he might not be the centre of this story, but he still gets to control the narrative in ponderous, paternal fashion.
Despite this clammy idealisation of Mirabelle and the fatally flawed central relationship, Shopgirl is not without charm. The scenes where Mirabelle dates Jeremy (Schwartzman gives an engagingly shambolic performance) display traces of Martin's buoyantly silly humour. Their first sexual encounter is genuinely comic: he brings a mint instead of a condom and then eats it; her cat exacts a terrible revenge. When Jeremy goes on the road with a rock band, he gets hooked not on drugs but on self-help books. There are more differences between him and Ray than their attention to hygiene: while Jeremy is willing to put in the work to win back Mirabelle, realising that, like her, he is a work in progress, Ray is a finished article, shut off, ossified.
The director, Anand Tucker, also strives to give the film an authentic gloss of city alienation, lovingly focusing on the rented apartments and sandwich shops, the empty streets and brash road signs. Yet there are too many slow shots of Mirabelle bathing or of the LA freeway system, too many starry skies and neon-lit buildings, too much straining for the grand scheme. You understand that Shopgirl is all about little lives in the big city, the places where love can spark and grow, and yet, for a film about connections, it never really manages to plug into a living pulse.