Steve Martin wrote the screenplay of "Shopgirl", based on his novella, and stars in the lead role in the film. This film is an intimate character study involving mainly three characters. The majority of the film involves watching one or two of these characters on screen. A film so sparsely populated with characters and events, packs so much drama, suspense, heartbreak and laughs that could rival films produced with twenty times its budget.
The opening scenes of the film should be prescribed as mandatory coursework in film schools for what a good screenplay should be. Just by stringing three shots together, at the beginning of the film, the screenplay says all that needs to be said about Claire Danes' character. These three shots eliminate what could have been 10 minutes of explanatory screenplay. Mirabelle (Danes) has moved to Los Angeles from Vermont, to start her life afresh. She works in the glove section of a departmental store, lives alone, draws in her spare time and has a non-existent social life. She meets two men in succession, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) a struggling artist who also works in an audio equipment shop, and Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a millionaire, who made his millions in the computer business, and shuttles between his palatial homes in LA and Seattle, in a private jet.
Her dates with Jeremy are one strange encounter after other. But these experiences are endearing enough for her go through with it. Jeremy is not the smoothest operator in town, but at least he is an original. Then the movie moves into the core relationship in the movie, that between Mirabelle and Ray Porter. Ray is suave, sophisticated, and says and does exactly what is expected of him. It is as though he has pre-programed himself in life, irrespective of whom or what he encounters. The arc of this relationship closely resembles the old guy/ young girl syndrome between Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan"- where the old guy is so sure of himself and manipulates the young girl so thoroughly, that at the end, when he realizes that what he had was the real thing, it is too late. He has manipulated himself out of happiness.
The film showcases strong performance from all three lead actors. Steve Martin morphs into his character seamlessly. His performance looks like it has been drained out of all emotions and inflections - this is not lack of effort, it is a calculatedly achieved minimum, a supreme contribution. Even the minor characters are fully drawn and well fleshed out (Mirabelle's father, though he appears in exactly two scenes, stays with us). There are two technical contributions that needs to be mentioned. First, the set design of the exterior of Mirabelle's house- the design of the stairs and positioning of the apartment entrance adds a subtle layer to the proceedings and at the same time suggesting a virtual dead-end for the character. Second, the make-up for Bridgette Wilson-Sampras' character- it silently proclaims the moral disrepute of the character.