More so than at perhaps any other time in his career, Steve Martin has a film that showcases his versatility.
“Shopgirl” started with Martin’s prose, his best-selling novella about a depressive wallflower pursued by a rich older man and an awkward young slacker. It comes to the theater via Martin’s own screenplay adaptation, which turned a highly internalized tale with minimal dialogue into a camera-friendly story.
It also features one of the finer in Martin’s growing range of quiet, restrained performances as he fills the role of the lonely older man looking for love while settling for sex with a woman half his age. And as the producer, Martin helped stitch together a pitch-perfect cast that includes Claire Danes as the wallflower and Jason Schwartzman as the slacker.
The only thing missing is the wild-and-crazy physical comedy that has been a trademark of Martin’s biggest successes, from “The Jerk” and “All of Me” to “Bringing Down the House” and “Cheaper By the Dozen.”
Earning respectDismissed by critics in the 1970s as an anti-intellectual, banjo-toting buffoon with a fake arrow through his head, Martin has undergone a gradual transformation since the mid-1980s to become an esteemed writer and performer.
“I think when the movie ‘Roxanne’ came out, which I also had written, I felt something new that I never felt, which was respect,” Martin said with a bonny laugh in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Shopgirl” played in advance of its Oct. 21 theatrical debut.
That continued through such films as “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “L.A. Story,” “Grand Canyon” and “The Spanish Prisoner” and a literary career that has produced the play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and the novel “The Pleasure of My Company.”
“Also, as you get older, you gain a little more weight just by default because you’ve been around that long,” said Martin, who turned 60 in August.
“Shopgirl” centers on Mirabelle (Danes), a twentysomething clerk at a ritzy Beverly Hills store. Solitary and on medication for deep depression, Mirabelle finds herself ineptly romanced by a young bumbler (Schwartzman) and swept off her feet by a rich divorced man (Martin).
Neither man proves quite what Mirabelle expected as the story winds through the euphoria of new romance, the sour taste of rejection and the human inclination to obsess over relationships gone wrong.
“I often think all that thinking we do and that emotional pain is some kind of evolutionary flaw. Why? Why are we neurotic? What’s the purpose?” Martin said. “It’s something like evolution going too far, and we end up so worried about things that don’t matter. That’s what love is. It’s like this whole side effect of mating that got really complicated.”
‘An incredibly dynamic person’“Shopgirl” is the first of a flurry of Martin films that continues with the Christmas release “Cheaper By the Dozen 2,” in which he reprises his role as patriarch to a family of 12 kids, and February’s “The Pink Panther,” in which he recreates Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
Even that broad range of films only scratches the surface of Martin’s talent, said “Shopgirl” co-star Danes.
“He’s an incredibly dynamic person. I don’t know if the general public is so conscious of that,” Danes said. “He’s a skillful, celebrated writer. He also collects art in earnest, and he’s also an incredible musician. You should hear him play the ukulele. It’s ridiculous what he’s capable of.”
The soft-spoken, graciously polite Martin comes off like an elder statesman far removed from the wild-and-crazy guy he once portrayed.
“The Steve Martin I met and got to know is not a wild-and-crazy guy,” said “Shopgirl” director Anand Tucker. “He’s an incredibly erudite, articulate, quiet, I want to say even shy man. Very thoughtful. So in some ways, the Steve Martin you see in ‘Shopgirl’ is more the real Steve Martin now.”
Martin is braced for the day when writing could become his main job if lead movie roles dry up.
“I’ve kind of looked at it in two ways. One, one day it’ll just be over,” Martin said. “On the other hand, you’ve got Walter Matthau. He found a way to be funny late in life. But to just take a role as a corporate executive who sets up the new young stars, I have no interest in that.”