Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

Pity the jester who longs to be a poet. Once the most popular comedian on earth, Steve Martin has dabbled with serious dramatic aspirations since 1981’s Pennies from Heaven, often with mixed results. This time he’s adapted his own novella into a screenplay that gropes for cosmic resonance in a story better suited as a frothy romantic comedy.

Focusing on a faded lothario and the beautiful gamine who loves him, it’s hard not to read Shopgirl as therapy, an apology or a catalog of Steve Martin’s personal fantasies.

Claire Danes stars as Mirabelle Butterfield, who daydreams her life away behind the long-ignored glove counter at the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. She’s a willowy, lonely girl in the big city, equally gawky and sensual, a wallflower just waiting for a ray of sunshine. In strolls Ray Porter (Martin), a suave silver fox accustomed to getting anything he wants with a wave of his checkbook. He buys her affection, and she happily gives it, even though he can never admit to it being more than a fling.

Martin seems to have borrowed a page from his old SNL running buddy Bill Murray’s recent work, donning a mask of sorrow and muting his comedic instincts in favor of stone-faced world-weariness. There are hardly any flashes of the old “wild and crazy guy” in Martin’s performance; aside from his sugar-daddy money, you wonder what Mirabelle sees in him.

Her other romantic option is the scruffy Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who dreams of building artistic custom amplifiers for rock bands. He’s weirdly charming, but too raw a product. He lacks any of the refinement or resources of Ray, though he may have real feelings for Mirabelle, if he could only identify them in his heart’s abundant clutter. So Mirabelle is torn between the distant father figure and the undeveloped man-child, and that’s about the size and shape of the dramatic complications.

With such an inert plotline the film gets padded out with long, lingering shots of the vast concrete oasis of Los Angeles, handsomely shot by David Cronenberg’s favorite cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, who lends everything a patina of upscale fashion-magazine elegance.

Blink and you might miss the onscreen cameo by Detroit’s own Volebeats, though one of their wonderfully wistful tunes does get a full spin, albeit over a lackluster montage.

The film is smart and maintains an atmosphere of enchanting melancholy, but never seems to peak. Martin has saddled himself with an intentionally hollow cad, and, try as she might, Danes can’t stoke Mirabelle’s inner fire beyond a pleasantly glowing cinder.

It’s not her fault; she’s a superior actress, but she’s playing not so much a character as a totem of loneliness and need, literally and figuratively a receptacle for whatever desires men want to pour into her.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].