Adapted for the screen by Martin from his novella and directed by Anand Tucker, Shopgirl is the sometimes hilarious but ultimately melancholy story of a relationship that seems doomed from the start. Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) is a young Vermont woman who moves to Los Angeles hoping to prosper both professionally and romantically. Mirabelle is an artist who specializes in stylizing photographs, often self-portraits. Alas, she isn't very aggressive, sells very few of her work and settles for a job selling gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue. Mirabelle's private life is even less successful. She doesn't seem desperately lonely, but she does seem almost utterly alone. She interacts with few of her co-workers and seems to have made no friends in the art world.
Then one evening at the laundromat she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an auto-equipment salesman about her own age who seems to have cornered the market on geekiness. Mirabelle and Jeremy go out a few times, but the relationship develops little intensity. Then Mirabelle meets Ray Porter (Martin), a polished man three decades her senior. Ray treats Mirabelle to fabulous dinners and posh vacations and showers her with expensive gifts. Ray is thoughtful, gentle and kind in many ways. But he tells Mirabelle from the beginning that he has no intention of falling in love, with her or anyone else. Despite Ray's forthright declarations of strict romantic limits to his involvement with Mirabelle, she keeps hoping for more. And so do we.
Mirabelle asks two key questions in the movie, both about Ray: Why did he pick me and why doesn't he love me? Shopgirl is vague in its answers to both these questions and might have achieved a greater and more sustaining emotional heft had it answered both more clearly. Ray is divorced, and we certainly discern that he wants a woman who feels "safe." That's the reason, we presume, he passes on Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), Mirabelle's blond bombshell Saks co-worker who dispenses X-rated advice about how to land and hold a man. Mirabelle's beauty is undeniable but also understated. The picture never makes this explicit, but Mirabelle's youth, education and economic station keep her from threatening Ray on any level. Perhaps that's why he picks her and why, until very late, he values her too little to love.
Shopgirl makes two narrative missteps. The picture includes a brief episode about Mirabelle's going off her anti-depression medication that arrives without adequate preparation -- but then the episode disappears without lasting impact. Much more seriously, Shopgirl makes Jeremy a poor rival for Mirabelle's affections. As depicted, Jeremy is not just broke and socially clumsy; he's unhygienic and uncouth as well. When Mirabelle agrees to have sex with him in the early going, we are repulsed rather than stimulated. (When I saw the film, the two twentysomething women in my row made audible gagging sounds.) Even when Jeremy turns a sales idea into reality, he barely sheds his geekiness and never convinces us his immediate success has much staying power. It's true that Woody Allen doesn't make his Alvy's Annie Hall rival (Paul Simon) very attractive physically. But that's on purpose, and so the film can emphasize what is attractive about Simon's character: He's a big-time record producer who praises Annie's musical talent (as Alvy hasn't) and offers her a chance for a singing career. In contrast, Jeremy never develops anything to offer Mirabelle.
In the end, though, Shopgirl gets inside us in a way comparable to Annie Hall. Few of us have navigated life's romantic waters without regrets and without recalling the wounds we suffered from those who hurt us or the enduring sorrow we feel over those we hurt. Thus, most of us can hear the lonely note of melancholy this film sounds so precisely. Even today, it's hard to watch Annie Hall without seeing it in part as Woody Allen's public apology to Diane Keaton. I have no evidence that Shopgirl is in any way autobiographical, and yet it's utterly convincing as Steve Martin's heartfelt apology to someone. As opaque as this film sometimes is, it touches something in our shared experience. It rings with sad truth.