There's something simultaneously self-lacerating and gratingly narcissistic about men who chastise themselves, in film or in literature, over their inability to truly reciprocate the deep, almost obsessive love they inspire in beautiful women. While Steve Martin's novella Shopgirl is fictional rather than overtly autobiographical, it does follow the theme, and Martin's ubiquity in the film adaptation—he produced, scripted, co-stars, and narrates—only exacerbates the narcissistic element. In a role seemingly similar to his offscreen self, Martin plays a deeply private man of wealth and taste who enters the lonely existence of Los Angeles shopgirl Claire Danes, sweeps her off her feet, deluges her with expensive presents, and embarks on an intense affair with her. Jason Schwartzman lends his peppery charm, offbeat charisma, and ingratiating quirkiness to the role of Martin's romantic rival and polar opposite, a daffy aspiring font-creator who spends much of the film on tour with a rock band, getting in touch with his feelings.
Martin establishes early on that he's looking for a no-strings-attached sexual fling rather than a permanent long-term relationship, but his actions' generosity and warmth contradict the icy boundaries his words establish. Shopgirl is concerned with the way power imbalances affect and corrupt romantic relationships, both in terms of economic power (Martin is rich, Danes is barely scraping by) and emotional power (Danes is more emotionally invested in the relationship, which comes off as a form of weakness). Martin's third-person omniscient narration further emphasizes his character's power and Danes' vulnerability. With her lithe frame and wonderfully expressive face and body language, Danes excels in conveying that sad, slightly desperate vulnerability non-verbally rather than through her spare dialogue. Her performance's fragile openness stands in poignant contrast to Martin's closed-off nature, which gives the film a beguiling, pervasive melancholy. Hilary And Jackie director Anand Tucker establishes and maintains an appropriately delicate tone, apart from the presence of cartoonish, jarring man-eater Bridgette Wilson, who seems to have wandered in from a much cruder comedy (perhaps one starring Ryan Reynolds.) She's a wholly unnecessary gargoyle of a villain, and she couldn't be more out of place this strangely resonant wisp of a movie, which at best is, in Martin's elegant words, tender and true.