In "Shopgirl," Steve Martin asks this question: "How do I love thee?" Then he counts the ways.

And here's what his accountancy came up with:






El Zilcho.

That's because "Shopgirl" is a movie of stipulations, not dramatizations. It presumes a love between its two antagonists, winsome Los Angeles salesclerk Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) and computer mogul Ray Porter (Martin). It tells us they are in love, it shows us their physical proximity, it watches raptly as they go through murmuring, whispering, snuggling, snoozing, schmoozing, licking -- okay, not licking -- and all the other little rituals of intimacy, then it insists that we accept those images as code for togetherness.

They are not. They are simply murmuring, whispering, snuggling, snoozing and schmoozing. "Shopgirl" doesn't show hearts and minds, souls and karmas, pheromones and flavors.

What is the content of this relationship? What does he, 60, handsome, prosperous, fashionable, like about her, 26, thin, waiflike, traditional, big-eyed, sharp-boned, cheek-flanged? (At least those are the actors' ages in real life.) Is it her beauty? You might assume so, but the movie doesn't have the energy to argue this as a position. He never says a thing about her beauty.

Is it her smell, her humor, her politics, her neck (necks are very good), her toes (toes are very good, also), her general body, a certain part of her body, her irony, her friendship (friendship is great), her parallel sense of the world as a stage for folly, madness, narcissism and venality (the very best!). The movie has no opinion; it doesn't comment. It is relentlessly outer-directed, obsessed with surfaces. It's like he likes her brands.

"God, it makes me so hot that you wear Blue Cult Low Rise Gigis in Silver Streak."

The movie feels weirdly over-concentrated on the wrong details: every little jot and wrinkle of The Scene, L.A.-style, without a sense of emotional accuracy.

That was Martin's choice -- though the movie was directed by Anand Tucker, Martin wrote the screenplay from his novella of the same name -- and I'm here to say, it doesn't really work.

The story is sparse. Mirabelle sits in the sleek, museumy emporium of Saks, generally ignored by all, wasting away in boredom. She meets an immature young man named Jeremy (played by Jason Schwartzman) in a laundromat and has a brief fling, but he's so insubstantial and unsocialized -- it's like dating a fetus -- that she breaks off with him.

She doesn't realize that she's been scoped out from afar by the far more sophisticated Ray. He buys a pair of gloves from her, and manipulates that transaction as a way to ask her out. The movie goes to great pains to portray this move as honorable -- he doesn't pressure her, he gives her space and time to consider, he set it up as a no-risk venture for her -- that it seems to care more about Ray's reputation than his emotions. It's not interested, even remotely, in expressing an attitude toward the May-December nature of this relationship, the 10,000-pound elephant in the room.

Instead, pretending it's perfectly normal for 60-year-olds to date 26-year-olds, it follows their nearly dialogue-free and texture-free relationship. In fact, it seems to be a relationship without lust, anger, subtext or psychology. Is she a daughter figure to him or he a father figure to her? No idea. Not interested. Nobody home.

Does she represent lost opportunity, a thaw in jellified juices, the touch of the taboo? Nope. Nah. Uh-uh.

What is going on in the movie?

The answer is: only the pictures, which seem to move.

There's one scene where Mirabelle wears gloves for him, suggesting an erotic obsessiveness that it otherwise shies away from. There's some indication that each has a kind of attraction to the art world, and that's pretty much it for details.

Meanwhile, the movie cuts over to Schwartzman's poor, schlumpy Jeremy, who, in an unlikely development, has gone on the road with a rock group and somehow begins to acquire the gravitas that she needs. I found his performance annoyingly cute -- he's always being eccentric for the camera, but he never says anything interesting. Then, at one point, Martin's script changes nature radically by engineering a low comic scene where a nasty fellow salesclerk (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) mistakes Jeremy for Ray and, in an eternal search for a deep-pockets sugar daddy, seduces him, unaware that he's basically just a roadie. I suppose there's a low laugh or two, but again, nothing substantial.

The whole movie feels like one of those painless migraine headaches: you know, where there's a whirlpool of blur in the center of your vision. It's stylish emptiness.

Shopgirl (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual innuendo and occasional nudity.

Forget the binoculars; Claire Danes and Steve Martin never get around to revealing what they see in each other.