Even when it's shot through with apology, a June-November romance like Shopgirl is full of unsavory implications. For all the castigation of older-male behavior that writer/star Steve Martin gets up to in this allegedly autobiographical story of cross-generational dalliance, a feminist critic could easily argue that the movie is still an excuse for an aging vanity case to get his face in the same frame as Claire Danes' ass. And then to profess guilt over it, which is even worse.
Though both of those things happen in Martin's adaptation of his well-received novella, our misgivings are muted by his surprisingly astute depictions of gender-specific longing. Title heroine Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes), a saleswoman at Los Angeles' Saks Fifth Avenue and a part-time artist, is surrounded by images of unattainable affluence and romantic satisfaction as she waits for the man who's just right for her. The goofy, perennially broke Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) is too much of a shambles, but brighter prospects arrive in the form of successful divorcé Ray Porter (Martin). He seduces Mirabelle by buying her a pair of Saks' own gloves, instigating a relationship based more on mutual curiosity than honesty. Ray is genuinely taken with Mirabelle, but his toying with her has a shelf life, and she knows it. Yet deep down, she's hoping for the infinite.
The film works largely because of Danes, whose child-woman routine appeals to our purest feelings of protectiveness (read: not paternalism). Smart, funny and sad, she once again proves herself the thinking man's Natalie Portman. Martin's Ray is more of a cipher, perhaps not tragically so; one look at the title reveals that the story is not about him. A well-chosen soundtrack of plaintive tunes supports the atmosphere of pending loss. It's feel-good fatalism.
The movie's grip tends to slacken; an interlude in which Jeremy goes on the road with a rock band reveals that the character is only amusing when he's surrounded by people who have some idea of how to behave in the first place. By the time he returns, though, the script has put its two other leads through paces of intimacy and detachment that ring with real-world resignation. Shopgirl has a knack for showing people caught between their farthest-ranging dreams and the needs of the moment. And that's every one of us regardless of age, sex or the gloves we can afford.