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http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2005/10/23/the_funny_thing_about_steve_martin/
The Boston Globe
The funny thing about Steve Martin
The 'Shopgirl' writer and star may be prone to reflection, but zaniness is never far away
By Mark Bazer, Globe Correspondent
October 23, 2005

CHICAGO -- There's a funny, endearing, and more than a little loopy character who shows up wearing a white suit at the end of "Shopgirl." The film stars and is written by Steve Martin, but the suit belongs to costar Jason Schwartzman's character, Jeremy. Martin, on the other hand, plays Ray Porter -- wealthy, reserved, a little aloof, sharply dressed but more than content not to stand out in a crowd.

A quarter of a century after Martin pulled the fake arrow out of his head, and even 14 years after the comedian roller skated through an art museum in "L.A. Story," Ray Porter is now the kind of character we aren't at all surprised to see Martin play. Heck, even in 2003's "Bringing Down the House," it took a while to get him to loosen up.

While Martin is hardly the minimalist, Jim Jarmuschized Bill Murray -- in 2003, he went on "Letterman" and pretended to dangle a baby off a balcony, à la Michael Jackson -- like his fellow elder statesman of comedy, he often has a reserve that suggests contemplation and having something to prove beyond getting the laugh. There was always an intelligence behind even his zaniest bits, and, these days, Martin's zaniness occasionally pokes its head out of something that's more reflective, like "Shopgirl." Contrary to the title of one of his classic comedies, Martin only has one brain.

"Shopgirl" will likely be classified as a comedy, but on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Martin describes the tone of his 2000 novella, on which the film is based, as "very melancholy, or achy, or thoughtful."

And so for Martin, the screenwriter, the big challenge was to transfer this tone to the screen -- and to adapt a 130-page text that largely exists without dialogue and within the minds of its three protagonists, Ray, Jeremy, and, most centrally, Mirabelle (Claire Danes).

"If you notice, in the first 10 minutes of the movie, there's no dialogue at all," Martin says. "And, yet, as in the book -- one of my purposes when writing was, I wanted by the end of five paragraphs or even one paragraph for you to feel for this girl. And I think the director [Anand Tucker] successfully did that."

Mirabelle, it's established from the first time we see her, is a lonely, delicate young woman working in the loneliest nook of the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue -- behind a counter of formal gloves that both customers and co-workers, like the sexed-up, quintessentially LA makeup-counter girl Lisa (Bridgette Wilson Sampras), only pass by.

We see Mirabelle "among the rich world and then going home to her collegiate apartment," Martin says. "And then, of course, the first thing you see her do that strikes you, she takes a nude photo of herself. To me, I always thought that was a nice surprise for the character.

It's perhaps this quiet, erotic vulnerability that, in the span of a few days, draws both Ray, a divorcee who made millions in computer software, and Jeremy, a slacker who stencils logos on guitar amplifiers, into Mirabelle's solitary world. That, or they're just single and horny. So Ray sends Mirabelle a pair of the exquisite gloves she knows so well; Jeremy takes her to an IMAX film and borrows money from her for a ticket. She chooses Ray.

But Mirabelle's relationship with Ray, we sense from the beginning, is destined for failure -- he wants a young woman and no commitment, she wants to be loved and makes the mistake of thinking he does, too.

Relationships "are always a part of learning about life," Martin says. "And I think, you know, it's surprising what relationships you look back on, now that I'm older, as the ones that were extremely valuable, and the ones that I learned something from through disaster, whether it's romantic or not."

What saves the old hurt-but-wiser-for-it lessons of the doomed relationships in our own lives from feeling like Hollywood cliches is exactly that -- they're our doomed relationships. And what saves ''Shopgirl" from the same fate is Martin's use of small moments to subtly illuminate his characters and life's Big Themes. Mirabelle making a nude self-portrait is one among many.

"I believe that the intimate view of someone in small moments really reveals character well," Martin says. "Those private moments of Mirabelle drawing, looking in her refrigerator -- those are all very specific.

"After Ray Porter asks her out on a date, the next thing you see her doing is bathing, meaning she said yes, or she's getting ready."

Martin adds, with a laugh, that he'd originally planned to follow up Mirabelle's subtly sexy date preparation with a shot of Lisa, her anything-but-subtle co-worker, shaving her bikini line. "From the back, obviously," he adds.

That scene wound up on the cutting-room floor, or is perhaps destined for the bonus features of the "Shopgirl" DVD. But you may be starting to get the picture: Steve Martin may dabble in serious fiction these days, but he's still, well, Steve Martin. He humorously tweaks the May-December romance in one scene set in Mirabelle's apartment, situating Ray deep in the crevices of a ratty futon that his old joints have a hard time navigating.

"I remember equating that experience of doing that scene with dancing with a really great dancer and all I had to do was follow," his co-star Danes says, in Chicago for a screening of "Shopgirl" at the city's annual film festival. "Suddenly, I felt hysterical, like my timing was great, but it was really that I was in his wake. With the futon bit, he tilted it so that his knees would come up even higher. And he played with [the word futon] a lot; he knew that was a funny word. And he immediately assessed that situation and exploited all the inherent jokes that were in there. He found them."

Still, you get the impression from Danes that Martin wasn't exactly cracking up the cast and crew on the "Shopgirl" set.

'He was working hard, I think he had to make a lot of decisions," she says. "And he was playing someone who was more somber, or sober, and grown up, so that influenced his persona on set, I think.

"Occasionally he'd make some really silly banana peel joke or something, and I'd be jarred by that," Danes says. " 'Oh, right, right, you're funny. You're, like, one of the funniest guys ever.' He's a lot of different things and is as comfortable as the fool as he is the exceedingly earnest intellectual."

No one, of course, would accuse Martin of wearing the earnest intellectual hat for his next film, "Cheaper by the Dozen 2." That sequel and "Shopgirl" are, as Martin says, "two entirely different animals." But while the comedian may not have the same intense personal connection to the family films he's starred in (but never written) as he has to his own creations, like "Roxanne" or "L.A. Story," he doesn't sign on just for the paycheck.

"I really like -- if we can keep it from getting too redundant and corny -- these family films," he says. "I think comedy at this level, at sort of the family-film level, is a way to very kind of lightly and politely learn about Mom and Dad and what they go through and what the kids are thinking."

Some longtime fans of Martin who wore out the grooves on his standup records and maybe even exclaimed "Excuuuuse me!" every chance they got might want to reach for their DVD of "The Jerk" rather than embrace his more intimate, brooding films or his family-friendly comedies (though the first ''Cheaper by the Dozen" was Martin's biggest box office hit to date).

But to argue that there's been more than one Steve Martin would be false. He'll thoughtfully discuss his approach to writing his silly 1999 comedy, "Bowfinger," and he'll play the fool in a futon in the "very melancholy, or achy, or thoughtful" "Shopgirl." Martin's comedy of the mind and of the body have never been far apart.

As his other "Shopgirl" costar, Schwartzman, also in Chicago for the film festival, says, "To say 'the real [Steve Martin]' to me makes it seem like then there's a fake guy, and there's not. He's always honest, and he's always Steve Martin."

And there had to be some jokes on set about how Martin should've been wearing the white suit, right?

"Nope," says Schwartzman. "No jokes."

KMT

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