Falling in Almost-Love

In "Shopgirl," Claire Danes finally gets the screen role that fulfills the promise of her TV series "My So-Called Life." As lonely, yearning salesgirl Mirabelle Buttersworth, a transplanted Vermonter selling gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills while dreaming of being an artist, Danes is heartbreakingly damaged, radiantly depressive. And so, for the most part, is this haunting adaptation of Steve Martin's novel. Written by Martin, directed by Anand Tucker ("Hilary and Jackie"), it's a minimalist almost-love story told with epic flourishes.

Two men enter Mirabelle's life, neither a perfect fit. In a laundromat she meets the scruffy, zonked-out Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a font designer who has to borrow money to take her on a date. At her counter at Saks, she meets Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a dot-com tycoon twice her age, with homes in Seattle and L.A. As soon as Ray starts to court her, the sweet but immature Jeremy takes a back seat. Ray makes it clear that he wants to keep his options open; he's not looking for anything too serious. But Mirabelle chooses not to hear him. Vulnerable and needy, she wants nothing less than love and commitment.

Ray is courtly and affectionate, but emotionally and physically pinched; he can't let himself go. Martin plays him with a kind of waxen diffidence, a hesitant suavity. There's real sadness in their failed connection, because there's real feeling in it. In most movies, Ray would be played as a cad, but "Shopgirl" is more nuanced than that. Ray is a decent guy, but he's not all there: there's a hint of complacent self-pity in this rich man, who prefers the comfort of solitude to the discombobulations of romance.

It's Schwartzman, not Martin, who provides the comic relief. His frazzled, socially inept Jeremy--who gets a massive infusion of self-esteem when a rock band takes him under their wing and on the road--might be from another (broader) movie entirely. (Jeremy's role has been expanded considerably from the novel, turning the story into a more conventional, less bleak, romantic triangle.) But there's a purpose to the clashing styles: all the characters in "Shopgirl" are spinning in their own orbit, with different rules of behavior. In the movie's alienated Los Angeles, nothing meshes.

Tucker imbues this small-scale story with a lush, melancholy lyricism. "Shopgirl" isn't seamless (a lot must have been cut out of Mirabelle's visit home to Vermont) but it has a plaintive emotional delicacy that gets under your skin. It's a trio for three instruments that have to struggle to play in tune.