Deft but slight, the new Steve Martin film, "Shopgirl," is a case of precise observation of nothing. It's like looking through a microscope at an empty slide.

From his own screenplay, which in turn was based on his own novella, and directed by Anand Tucker, the movie watches listlessly as old rich guy Ray Porter (Martin) picks up, seduces and begins a pointless, clearly doomed affair with shopgirl Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), who sells gloves at Saks in Beverly Hills. Slight age diff: He's fifty-something, she's twenty-something (the actors are now 60 and 26). Is this harmless or a species of child abuse? On this issue, as on many others, the movie is silent.

It's a film concerned with cool surfaces, with getting things right, particularly clothes and fashion accoutrements. It's hip, it's now, it's happening, it's dull. The movie never explains the nature of this relationship: Why does he become obsessed (in a polite way) with her; why in turn does she let a man older than her father, even if he's as well preserved as any 40-year-old, caress her body? No answers.

Meanwhile, although it never develops much narrative tension (because there's not much conflict, only behavior) Beatle-haired Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a rejected but more appropriate suitor, presses his case via long-distance while he's on the road with what can only be a late middle-aged man's view of a rock band.

You keep expecting "Shopgirl" to get funny or sad or poignant; it never does. It just starts, then it's over.

-- Stephen Hunter