Mirabelle (Claire Danes) is a bored, lonely shopgirl stuck working the glove department at Saks, dreaming of a better life. While working she meets Ray (Steve Martin), a shy, wealthy businessman who offers her silver-lined romance and conditional love. At night, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a grubby roadie who offers her little (in fact he takes more than he gives), but is relentless in his pursuit. As the year passes carefully, Mirabelle’s experiences with these two men help her to understand who she is, and free her from the cocoon of routine she was trapped in.

As an actor, Steve Martin always seems to lean toward slapstick comedy. But as an author, his acerbic wit and spiky prose shine in ways Hollywood never lets him show. “Shopgirl,” adapted from Martin’s 2000 novella, reveals a different, almost melancholy mood inside the performer, and he seems ready to rip apart the conventions of a romantic feature film.

While marketed as a standard “who will she chooser” feature film, “Shopgirl” is anything but. Martin’s screenplay explores relationships for the ugliness they are and the beauty they can be, but keeps his focus on the individual, not the couple. In this case, it’s Mirabelle, and her thirsty heart. Played with expected, yet breathtaking accuracy by Claire Danes, Mirabelle’s odyssey doesn’t follow the traditional push-and-pull romantic entanglements; her character arc in “Shopgirl” is much more complicated, as Martin considers the personal growth that comes from relationships, and how life experiences shape people in strange ways. While the film takes delight in demonstrating the colorful characters that fall into Mirabelle’s view, in the end, the attention remains with Mirabelle and her fractured expectations for life and love.

Director Anand Tucker (his first film since 1998’s achingly beautiful “Hilary and Jackie”) has chosen a highly theatrical approach to filming “Shopgirl.” With exaggerated lighting and an overbearing score by Barrington Pheloung (which suggests that Mirabelle is near suicidal every time it appears), the film works hard to create a sense of profundity from Martin’s story. At times, this can be exhausting to watch, and strangely damages the specific pace that Tucker builds in his first act. Martin’s script takes the characters to unexpected places (Jeremy ends up on an enlightening tour with a rock band), and Tucker is intermittently unable to connect the story together in satisfying ways, especially during a mid-movie droop which finds Mirabelle falling back into the depression she was secretly fighting. Either Martin had difficulty managing his tale, or Tucker couldn’t juggle fast enough, but the story slackens as is goes along, taking with it a clarity that was so invigorating to the opening scenes.

Drawing complicated portraits of lovers and friends, “Shopgirl” goes to some very interesting places found in both the mind and heart. It’s an interesting movie, if a bit messy, but it has an interest to explore the complicated residue of poisonous relationships, and features a good quality cast and crew to richly realize the emotions.

Rating: B