''Shopgirl" is a very strange little movie, and not just because its vision of an empty, rain-swept Los Angeles is a depressive's version of the real thing. Produced and written by Steve Martin, based on his 2000 novella -- it read like a New Yorker short story with ambitions -- Anand Tucker's film is an aching mood piece about a woman whose inner loveliness goes unnoticed by those around her. That woman, Mirabelle Buttersfield, is played by Claire Danes, and actress and character are allowed to break our hearts at regular intervals. Yet as much as the movie loves them both, ''Shopgirl" still manages to be a Steve Martin vanity project in ways that are fairly creepy.
By day Mirabelle works at Saks in Beverly Hills, tending the glove station like a novice nun; at night, she returns to her dumpy apartment in Silver Lake and reads Penguin classics. She fiddles with art projects, does her laundry, waits for life to happen. Tucker films it all with a slow, religious intensity meant to give mythic weight to ordinary things: The camera soars over the banks of lipsticks at the department store while Barrington Pheloung's score, gorgeous and intrusive, weeps for a world too blind to see the swan in its midst.
''Shopgirl" assumes that Mirabelle can't be happy without a man, and suddenly there are two of them at her door. The younger one, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), is a hapless slacker -- ''I'm an OK guy, by the way," he blurts at their first meeting -- and whose ''job" consists of creating fonts for an amplifier company. There's a desperate, comic sex scene (note to young men: Never borrow a condom from a woman's next-door neighbor), but Jeremy can barely live his own life let alone share it with someone else.
The older man, dropping into Mirabelle's view with studied elegance, is Ray Porter (Martin), a wealthy tech maven who gives her all she deserves -- attention, affection, haute couture dresses -- everything except love. He's one of those terribly nice guys who's a jerk at heart. So whom does Mirabelle choose? The boy who's not yet a man? Or the man who won't stop being a boy?
So far, so good, and ''Shopgirl" is filled with sharp behavioral details: the way a 50-something gentleman might settle awkwardly into a young woman's futon, or the way guys prefer to eat supper standing at their kitchen counters. As Mirabelle's trampy co-worker, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras seems to have wandered in from another, coarser movie, but the film needs the lift she provides.
Tucker and Martin miscalculate dreadfully, though, with their decision to use chunks of the book's text as narration, read by Martin himself. These explain too much -- they tell rather than show -- and it's fatally unclear whether we're listening to Ray or to the man playing him. ''What [Mirabelle] needs is an omniscient voice to spotlight and illuminate her," goes one line. No, what she needs is a movie that's actually interested in what she thinks.
''Shopgirl" would rather see Mirabelle the way Ray does, as an ardent natural wonder with collarbones to die for. Without realizing it, the film becomes an ode to middle-aged male lechery of a literate sort; it plays like Left Coast Woody Allen, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Danes gives a tremendous performance, watchful and glowing, and she's not afraid to look ugly when she cries -- points for that. But when the movie catches her offhand gestures in slow motion or shows her lying, a nude odalisque, on Ray's bed, it offers her up as a fountain of youth to be drunk by others. What ''Shopgirl" says about Mirabelle is poignant but shopworn; what it says about Steve Martin is less flattering than he thinks.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.