csaEvery couple of years the other Steve Martin emerges from his hole, blearily blinks his eyes, makes a good movie, and then goes back to sleep again. While that Steve Martin sleeps there’s a different guy who runs around making shitty and broad comedies like Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2.

2005 is a big year for the good Steve Martin. He’s got a new movie, based on a lovely novella he wrote back in 2000. It’s called Shopgirl, and it’s a delicate and honest story, much slighter than the usual romcom but also much, much deeper.

Claire Danes is Mirabelle, who works at the fancy glove counter of Saks Fifth Avenue. She’s an artist, but the job keeps her student loans in check and gets her a small apartment that she stays in alone a lot. She’s a little bit sad, and she’s a little bit lonely, and one night at the Laundromat she crosses paths with Jeremy, a dimwitted slacker. They go on possibly the worst date of all time, where he has to borrow money to go to the movies. They attempt to have sex, but Mirabelle’s cat decides to use Jeremy’s nuts as a speedbag.

Then Mirabelle meets Ray Porter. He’s a rich – private plane rich –  older man who discovers her at Saks, and soon they’re swept up in a romance. Ray thinks that he’s made it clear that this is all a fling, while Mirabelle thinks that he’s in love with her. Meanwhile Jeremy begins touring the country with a band, and gets into a bizarre self help routine.

That’s pretty much the plot of the film. There are incidences along the way, but what’s important here are the people and their often understated reactions. Shopgirl is a quiet movie, and when Jeremy isn’t onscreen it’s kind of a still movie. Martin wrote the screenplay, and he hasn’t fleshed out the novella – in fact, he’s dropped stuff (like most of the scenes with Mirabelle’s parents), and he’s left on the page almost all of the wonderful narration that makes reading the book such a joy. What is left is a very minimalist film, something that echoes Lost in Translation in that it’s full of people not saying what they’re feeling or thinking.

It’s easy to compare Shopgirl to Lost in Translation. Both have incredibly specific senses of place – Lost in Translation has Tokyo, while Shopgirl is very much a Los Angeles movie. They also both feature May/December relationships, although Shopgirl’s is consummated. But where the comparisons fall apart is in the leading men. It would be easy to equate Ray with Bill Murray’s Bob Harris, but while they are both older men suffering some kind of crisis, they couldn’t be more different.

Ray Porter is unable to find a meaningful connection. He holds the world at a distance, while Harris was numb to it. By the end of Shopgirl we come to understand that Ray is the child here, a selfish man who won’t grow up and understand that a relationship isn’t based on gifts and sex, but rather lots and lots of work. Jeremy, the seemingly dense bum, figures this out.

There’s something so real about Steve Martin’s portrayal of Ray that I can’t help but feel sorry for the actor. It feels like he’s saying that antic comedian isn’t really him, that this guy, this lonely and confused guy who can’t keep anyone close, is the real him. It’s not an Academy Award performance – like Bill Murray’s Bob Harris it’s just about the complete opposite of the sort of flashy acting the Oscar wants to recognize – but it’s magnificent nonetheless. He’s playing with his persona on purpose here; Ray made his money in computers (hey, just like Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, where he plays a character much more like Ray Porter. Maybe there’s something going on here), but it’s so vague it’s not hard to believe that it’s still Steve Martin in there.

His younger co-stars don’t quite have the chops that he does. Claire Danes is physically perfect as Claire – there’s something about her face that isn’t the homogenized Hollywood concept of beauty. You could imagine her being at a bar and not being the most beautiful woman there (conversely it’s much harder to accept Charlize Theron as anything but the local hottie, so this week’s North Country does just that), but she’s soulful, and that’s what Ray falls for. He really is looking for something deeper, I think, but just can’t make it work. Anyway, Danes has the look, but she’s not convincing with the depth.

Jason Schwartzman, meanwhile, makes the best of a very tough role. Jeremy is the comedic relief throughout the picture – director Anand Tucker keeps cutting back to him and revealing his goofy but earnest efforts at self-improvement. In fact, Schwartzman often seems to be in a completely different picture from Danes and Martin, and sometimes the tone of his scenes gets skewed. Still, he’s fairly good as a dummy. By the way, to give you an idea of how small this film is, the three leads are essentially the only characters in it.

I can’t decide if Shopgirl is a good date movie. I know the studio would like to sell it as such, but I think that the issues that it raises are the kinds of issues that are too weird to talk about after a first or second date. And then once you’ve been dating longer than that the issues become just uncomfortable. Shopgirl is also not the kind of film that’s going to appeal to many teens, since they don’t have the depth of experience to understand the relationships in the film.

So Shopgirl gets the ultimate stigma: It’s a smart, small film that’s perfect for adults. It’s a melancholy meditation on why our relationships keep on not working.  And it’s sweet and it’s sad and it’s funny in equal measure.

8.8 out of 10