Steve Martin the author is well served by Martin the multihyphenate in "Shopgirl," a smartly reconstituted yet largely faithful adaptation of his precisely crafted novella about the life lessons that define bittersweet romance. Mainstream auds expecting a Martin laff riot may be surprised, which could translate into downbeat word of mouth.

Steve Martin the author is well served by Martin the multihyphenate in “Shopgirl,” a smartly reconstituted yet largely faithful adaptation of his precisely crafted novella about the mixed signals, misinterpretations and melancholy life lessons that define bittersweet romance. Mainstream auds expecting a Martin laff riot may be surprised — and disappointed — by the paucity of guffaws, which could translate into downbeat word of mouth. With careful marketing and critical support, however, the pic could reach enough simpatico ticket-buyers to post respectable numbers, improving in homevid.

Collaborating with helmer Anand Tucker (“Hilary and Jackie”), Martin does triple duty as scripter, star and co-producer. But except for a snippet of scene-setting narration, he doesn’t enter until 20 minutes into the pic.

Opening scenes deftly establish the loneliness and wistful yearning of aspiring artist Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), a twentysomething transplanted Vermonter whose sense of isolation is enhanced by her job as sales clerk at the seldom-frequented glove counter in a fashionable Los Angeles department store.

Mirabelle is so hungry for human connection she accepts a date with scruffy motormouth Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and eventually has comically unsatisfying sex in a scene typical of sporadic episodes–most involving Jeremy — that deliberately disrupt pic’s overall contemplative tone.

Although Jeremy becomes instantly smitten, Mirabelle attaches little importance to their relationship, making it easier for her to shift her focus when Ray Porter (Martin) appears at her glove counter.

A smoothly self-possessed dot-com millionaire with a private jet and lavish L.A. and Seattle homes, the fiftysomething Ray woos Mirabelle with equal measures of courtly attentiveness and methodical determination.

After they make love for the first time, however, he politely but firmly tells her they should keep their options open and see other people.

Later, in a clever split-screen sequence that recalls a similar moment in “Annie Hall,” Ray tells an acquaintance that he and Mirabelle agree theirs is a no-strings-attached relationship. On the other side of the screen, Mirabelle indicates to friends that she senses a deepening commitment.

Ray’s wealth allows him to buy expensive clothes and pay off a huge student loan for the lovely young woman. And he’s reflexively courteous and compassionate in times of emergency.

But despite these gestures, eventually even the lovestruck Mirabelle has to acknowledge the unbridgeable distance between them.

Martin hits all the right notes while subtly conveying both the appealing sophistication and the purposeful reserve of Ray. But he cannot entirely avoid being overshadowed by Dane’s endearingly vulnerable, emotionally multifaceted and fearlessly open performance. (In a few scenes, she appears so achingly luminescent it’s almost heartbreaking to watch her.) The two stars bring out the very best in each other, particularly in a poignant final scene.

Martin and Tucker are surprisingly successful at capturing the distinctive tone and delicate nuances of a novella that often reads like the work of a contemporary Henry James. (There’s a provocative hint of “The Beast in the Jungle” to both the novella and this adaptation.)

Some readers may complain Martin has upset the balance of his original storyline by drastically expanding the character of Jeremy. But though the alteration creates a more conventional romantic triangle, it also allows Schwartzman to provide welcome comic relief. He’s especially funny during a mistaken-identity encounter with Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as Mirabelle’s gold-digging co-worker.

Judging from the virtually wordless cameos by familiar supporting players — including Frances Conroy as Mirabelle’s mom and Clyde Kusatsu as her boss — other significant changes were effected in the editing room during an unusually long post-production period.

Much like Martin’s scripts for “L.A. Story” and “Bowfinger,” “Shopgirl” — both book and film — places characters in a vividly detailed, semi-affectionately satirized L.A. landscape. Pic has fleeting fun with the city’s more amusing eccentricities. (A visit to Universal CityWalk is both funny and character-defining.)

But the most deeply affecting moments in “Shopgirl” spring from a sense of the city as a place where disconnectedness is the norm, and isolation breeds neediness in those who are emotionally vulnerable.

Tucker underscores these elements with astute framing, graceful camera movements and shrewd pacing. He gets invaluable assistance from lenser Peter Suschitzky, costumer Nancy Steiner and production designer William Arnold.

Composer Barrington Pheloung occasionally errs on the side of overstatement, but pic’s recurring main theme is aptly evocative.

Shopgirl

Production

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment presentation of an Ashok Amritraj production. Produced by Amritraj, Jon Jashni, Steve Martin. Executive producer, Andrew Sugerman. Co-producer, Marcus A. Viscidi. Directed by Anand Tucker. Screenplay, Steve Martin, based on his novella.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Peter Suschitzky; editor, David Gamble; music, Barrington Pheloung; production designer, William Arnold; art director, Sue Chan; set decorator, David Smith; costume designer, Nancy Steiner; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Edward Tise; associate producers, Nick Hamson, Simon Conder; assistant director, Timothy Bird; casting, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 8, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Ray Porter - Steve Martin Mirabelle Buttersfield - Claire Danes Jeremy - Jason Schwartzman Lisa Cramer - Bridgette Wilson-Sampras Dan Buttersfield - Sam Bottoms Catherine Buttersfield - Frances Conroy Christie Richards - Rebecca Pidgeon Loki - Samantha Shelton Del Rey - Gina Doctor Mr. Agasa - Clyde Kusatsu Loan Officer - Romy Rosemont

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