In the voice-over narration Steve Martin reads at the beginning of SHOPGIRL, based on his novella and for which he provided the screenplay, he informs the audience that the eponymous wage-earner of the piece, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), is special, if only people would realize it. He also informs us that she came to Los Angeles from Vermont in order to start her life and has, instead, found a slew of near-misses that have kept her working the lonely glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. Unfortunately, though there is exquisite cinematography and only a scooch more product placement than absolutely necessary, the film fails to make the case for Mirabelle being anything more than a sweet-natured girl who is a bit more desperate for a connection with another human being than is strictly speaking good for her.
Her wishes come true, or at least what the talk-radio host tells her should be her wish, in the form of two suitors who could not be more different. Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who clumsily charms her at a laundromat into going on an even more clumsy date with him, and Ray (Martin), a generic sort of nice guy, at least on the surface, who charms her into a dinner date at a painfully upscale cafe. And while the venues are radically different, the awkwardness of a first date is there in equal and painful measure. Jeremy is a designer of fonts who is sweet-natured narcissist, broke, and without a clue about how to effectively pitch woo, never mind that he has, perhaps, too much personality for the delicate Mirabelle. Ray is also sweetly narcissistic, but very rich and very adept at pitching said woo, though he is more than a bit on the dull side. That both are emotionally unavailable only serves to make the contrast more interesting. Where Ray is perfectly content to drift from relationship to relationship, Jeremy, after being rebuffed by our damsel in romantic and financial distress, sets about learning how to be a better significant other.
For those who are expecting the absurdist reverie of Martin's earlier film L.A. STORY, a sore disappointment is at hand. If that film was infatuated with Los Angeles, SHOPGIRL is precisely the opposite, the anti-L.A. STORY, as it were. This is a drear and smoggy dystopia of unrelenting sun and even more unrelenting insincerity. Happiness does not come from within, it would, in fact, turn tail and scamper away for all its worth after taking a peep at its surrounding. Here it is the acquisition of material goods, particularly clothing, that insures happiness, or at least fosters the façade of same in a city where image is everything.
Danes gives a heartfelt performance, but with a character that is just not all that interesting, even as she is puzzling over the artwork she works at between bouts with the glove counter and her suitors. As for Martin, he is so low-key as to be a non-entity, and while Schwartzman is completely adorable with his puppy-dog eagerness without an outlet, Jeremy remains essentially a one-dimensional prop in Mirabella's life, serving only as the measure of everything that Ray is not. Shooting like a flash of scarlet on a beige canvas is Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as Mirabelle’s gold-digging and very jealous co-worker whose approach is calculating, profane, and yet, oddly, she is the most emotionally honest of any character in the film.
There is throughout an overwhelming sense of the uneasiness each character feels to a greater or lesser degree as they grapple with the pursuit of happiness in Los Angeles. There is also an overweening sense of condescension when it comes to the social and economic gulf between Mirabelle and Ray where instead a sense of poignancy would have worked so much better. The question of where all this leads beyond a pat ending, and why we should be following, is never convincingly answered. As an anthropological study of the state of the male-female relationship in contemporary society, SHOPGIRL provides interesting fodder. As entertainment, it falls short.