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‘Shopgirl’ lacks light touch

Only Schwartzman comes away unscathed from would-be romantic comedy

Based on Steve Martin’s 2000 novella, “Shopgirl” is a curiously clueless mess: a would-be romantic comedy from which only Jason Schwartzman emerges unscathed.

Handed his best role since “Rushmore,” Schwartzman is the sprite who keeps the movie from being overwhelmed by its own arty tendencies. Whenever he’s not around, “Shopgirl” loses most of its energy and all of its charm. As Jeremy, a nearly penniless Los Angeles artist who grows up in a hurry when he takes a road trip with a rock band, Schwartzman dominates the first half hour with his nervy, try-anything presence.

Whether he’s picking up a girl at a laundromat, or taking her on a cheap date to examine the neon marquees in a mall, or adopting a dubious philosophy by listening to self-help books on tape, he comes close to being the whole show. Alas, once Jeremy is on the road, he’s also out of sight, and the role turns out to be supporting.

“Shopgirl” was written and co-produced by Martin, who also plays the central male role: Ray, a distant millionaire who falls for an insecure young photographer, Mirabelle (Claire Danes), whose daytime job is selling gloves and accessories at the Beverly Hills branch of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Ray is very big with the gifts, buying pricey clothes for Mirabelle and even paying off her substantial student loan, but his generosity, which he admits is easy for him, doesn’t lead to true intimacy. He isn’t comfortable getting close to people, though Mirabelle thinks she can help him.

Complicating their relationship is Jeremy, who dated Mirabelle first and clearly offers her more of a future than the fickle, easily distracted Ray can. It takes the movie 106 minutes to arrive at the same conclusion that most moviegoers will have reached much earlier: Ray is a creep, and Jeremy is a hoot.

It can’t be easy for someone like Martin to take on a role like this. He tries to locate hints of humanity inside Ray; he makes a valiant attempt to express a soul behind the vacancy. But the character resists all attempts to make him likable, especially when the script resorts to a moralistic, voice-of-God narration to underline Roy’s soullessness.

Mirabelle’s character was inspired by Allyson Hollingsworth, whose drawings and photographs are used in the film. She’s also listed in the credits as a consultant, yet “Shopgirl” reveals very little about what kind of work she does or what inspires her. Although Danes does her best to give the character an edge, this ordinarily excellent actress is stranded with almost nothing to play.

The director, Anand Tucker, drew Oscar-nominated performances from Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths in “Hilary and Jackie” (1998), but he seems uneasy with the demands of romantic comedy. Most of the non-Schwartzman episodes have a heavy, self-conscious quality, underlined not only by Martin’s deliberately inert performance but by a score that suggests Samuel Barber’s deadly serious “Adagio for Strings.” To put it mildly, Tucker does not demonstrate anything remotely resembling a light touch.