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Martin's 'Shopgirl' too serious to hold its own

In "Lost in Translation," Bill Murray played a successful middle-aged man who staved off his mounting boredom and malaise by flirting with a woman less than half his age. The movie worked well because the relationship never went beyond the platonic stage and Murray's bone-dry wit was so endearing.

"Shopgirl" uses the same premise as "Lost in Translation" and shoots for the same mix of comedy, drama, melancholy and longing. Instead, it crashes before it even gets off the ground.

Steve Martin (who also wrote the screenplay based on his own novella) stars as Ray, who shares the Murray character's success and complacency but not one iota of his charm or integrity.

When it opens, we think we're getting a facsimile of Martin's "L.A. Story," a light but insightful City of Angels-based expose on the romantic miscommunication between the sexes. In actuality, we get a dour, serious, often mean-spirited story with regular intervals of ill-fitting comic relief.

The comedy comes courtesy of Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore") as Jeremy, an unkempt yet eternally optimistic bohemian type who quickly falls for Mirabelle (Claire Danes). New England transplant Mirabelle works at the glove desk at Saks and is so starved for attention that she overlooks Jeremy's many botched attempts at wooing her. She might even continue seeing him if not for the arrival of Ray.

Far from smooth, Ray still makes a better first impression than Jeremy, and his considerable wealth and attention to detail eventually wins Mirabelle over. They get hot and heavy real quick but are clearly not on the same plane when it comes to their future together. The tiny sliver of time spent on this facet of the story is the only segment that approaches enlightening or entertaining.

The principal fault is with Martin's screenplay. It's stiff as a board and disengaging. Unlike "L.A. Story," "Shopgirl" is devoid of wit and comes off as cold and brittle. This isn't helped any with the direction from Anand Tucker, who uses the same heavy hand he exhibited in the near-perfect "Hilary and Jackie."

Even in his worst films ("Cheaper by the Dozen," "The Out-of-Towners") Martin is able to exude an air of playfulness and approachable likeability. He's anything but likable here.

Schwartzman and Danes both go far in transcending the slight material given to them. Jeremy eventually grows on us, but it takes the entire length of the movie for this to happen. Danes is immediately effective with her rendition of the generally hard-to-play Plain Jane. We care greatly what happens to Mirabelle, even more so had she been in a better movie. Something in Martin's novella-to-screen adaptation got lost in the translation. (Touchstone)