If you have access to the Starz cable network, and you haven't yet savored the many pleasures of the criminally under-rated Shopgirl -- well, remember to set your TiVo for 8 pm CST Monday.
Steve Martin the author is well served by Steve Martin the multihyphenate in this delicately nuanced 2005 dramedy, a smartly reconstituted yet surprisingly faithful adaptation of Martin’s precisely crafted novella about the mixed signals, misinterpretations and melancholy life lessons that define a bittersweet romance.
Martin – who serves as star, screenwriter and co-producer for director Anand Tucker – plays Ray Porter, a fiftysomething dot-com millionaire who begins what he thinks will be a casual affair with Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), a twentysomething sales clerk at a posh L.A. department store. Very quickly, however, the relationship evolves into something appreciably more complicated.
Ray’s great wealth allows him to do many things – everything from buying expensive clothes to paying off a huge student loan -- for the lovely young woman who has captured his fancy. And he’s reflexively courteous and compassionate in times of emergency, particularly when she suffers side-effects after unwisely deciding to stop taking her prescribed anti-depressants.
But despite these gestures, which Mirabelle understandably interprets as signs of deep affection, Ray insists that he isn’t in love. (At least, that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.) Eventually, reluctantly, even the smitten 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 even he is hard-pressed to keep from being overshadowed by Dane’s endearingly vulnerable, emotionally multifaceted and fearlessly open performance as Mirabelle. (In a few scenes, she appears so achingly luminescent that it’s almost heartbreaking just to watch her.) Two stars bring out the very best in each other, particularly in the poignant final scene...
OK, I know what you're thinking: "Another male fantasy about a May-December romance!" Well, not quite.
“I forget what he was referencing,” Martin told me after Shopgirl was screened at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, “but a friend of mine – a quite smart, educated person – said that in the 19th century, older men often mentored young women as one of the mores of growing up. I think it’s not an L.A. phenomenon, it’s an everywhere phenomenon. All the smart people say, ‘Age doesn’t matter, it’s what works.’
“And that’s what this story’s about. If we were the same age, there’s no story. This is what it’s about, the slight mismatch of desires, the misunderstandings, the effort of, I believe, every character in the film to be good and be honest – and yet pain still happens.
“In a way, for Ray, it’s like a teen-age affair that takes place later in life. With a teen-age affair, it’s all going on, going on – but at the same time, you know it’s finite somehow. Or maybe you don’t, but everybody else knows it’s going to be finite. And I think Ray Porter was still doing a teen-age affair – almost like a business deal, finite – and assumed that everybody involved understood finite. I think one of the lessons – well, if not a lesson, one of the comments in the book is, nobody understands finite. You can say it a million times, but people still believe they’re in a relationship.
"At some point, it’s always going to be painful.”
BTW: Here's a link to my 2005 Q&A with Steve Martin. And here is my original Variery review.