Some audiences are just never going to cotton to a screen romance that has Steve Martin, 60, getting it on with Claire Danes, 26. To which I say: Grow up, people. The May-December thing worked in Lost in Translation and it works here, thanks to the perceptive and gracefully romantic script that Martin has adapted from his novella. This is not the wild-and-crazy Martin of Bringing Down the House, this is the Martin who writes for The New Yorker with erudition and wit. OK, you’ve been warned. For those still interested, we’ll move on.
Martin, in a sharp, subtle performance, plays Ray Porter — possessed of charm, intelligencend millions from an L.A. computer business that allows him to indulge his taste for art and sex. There is something courtly but detached about Ray that may have factored into his divorce. And the fact that Martin is probably writing about himself won’t be lost on alert viewers.
Ray is first attracted to Vermont transplant and aspiring artist Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes) when he sees her selling gloves at Saks. The pristine setting — Mirabelle standing amidst uncluttered elegance — is clearly a turn-on for Ray, who seems to prefer things untouched by human hands.
As yet, Ray doesn’t know about Mirabelle’s messy, age-appropriate relationship with Jeremy (a very funny Jason Schwartzman, who functions as the film’s broadly comic relief). But even when he does find out, Ray isn’t flustered. Mirabelle wears her emotions more openly. She aspires to Ray’s sophistication. Mistakenly, she also thinks she can cut through his veneer. Danes, on a roll with Stage Beauty, Igby Goes Down and the upcoming Family Stone, gives her best performance yet. It’s through her that Ray’s character is truly defined. He doesn’t see what he’s missing by keeping Mirabelle at a distance, but we do in the light of Danes’ luminosity and spirit.
What’s intuitive filmmaking, and director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) deserves credit for letting us catch Mirabelle in and out of Ray’s pumpkin shell. If Ray’s world seems hermetically sealed — Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is cannily sleek — that’s because it’s the source of his comfort and his sorrow. Even the film’s missteps (the score, by Barrington Pheloung, is cringe-inducing) can’t stop this meditation on love — Martin calls it “Jane Austen for the twenty-first century” — from melting into heartbreak.