Martha, My Dear

Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) is a terror in the kitchen of the Lido, the trendy Hamburg restaurant where she works, but she's terrified of pretty much everything outside of it. She's a master in the realm of souffls and soups, and her customers look upon her with awe, but her obsessive devotion to the culinary arts and her almost total inability to meaningfully connect with other humans makes Martha both annoying and sad. So we can sympathize with Frida (Beyond Silence's Sibylle Canonica), Martha's boss, when she orders Martha to see a shrink. But Martha has hardly begun to unravel her own tangle of neuroses when her sister up and dies, and our heroine finds herself forced to deal with the care and feeding of Lina (Maxime Foerste), Martha's grief-stricken, eight-year-old niece. As if all this weren't enough to drive a lady with heavy control issues right up the wall, there's also Mario (The Starmaker's Sergio Castellitto), a new Italian gent on the restaurant staff who seems determined to either sweep Martha off her feet or steal away her job; both options are intolerable, and it's hard to say which one unsettles Martha more.

As plots go, this is dangerously tired stuff, harkening back to at least the late '80s, the dark days of such justly forgotten yuppie-gets-saddled-with-a-kid-and-learns-to-slow-down-and-appreciate-life movies as Baby Boom and Three Men and a Baby. Some plots are eternal; they were old when Shakespeare got his mitts on them, but they still get used today and nobody complains. But some plots are, if not DOA, at least profoundly weary OA, and Mostly Martha's plot has been so overused the film's poster should by all rights feature one of those swirly little logos you see on recycled goods.

Typically, Hollywood will get a hold of a winsome foreign flick, dumb it down and vulgar it up something awful for an American remake. But if one didn't know better, one could easily take Mostly Marthafor a winsome foreign remake of a dumb, vulgar American comedy; the 1996 Whoopi Goldberg time-waster Bogus had more or less precisely the same premise as Mostly Martha, with Goldberg as a harried restaurant-supplies owner who was forced to care for Haley Joel Osment following the unexpected death of Goldberg's foster sister. True, Bogus was more of a fantasy, featuring the antics of Grard Depardieu as Osment's imaginary Frenchman friend, although it's not much of a stretch to say that Castellitto fulfills a similar function here as a twinkly foreigner.

That Mostly Martha manages to be actually enjoyable is a testament to the talents of writer/director Sandra Nettlebeck and her bustling cast. If the plot is threadbare, the characters trapped within it are at least quirky and interesting. When we first encounter Martha, she is meticulously explaining the details of preparing one of her specialties; all well and good, but the person she's explaining it to is her shrink. Martha all too literally lives for her job; scratch her, and she'll bleed bouillabaisse. There is something simultaneously funny and tragic about Martha, and Gedeck's artfully calibrated performance manages to make us care about a woman who could be rather uniquely unappealing in real life. Castellitto also brings zest to his role, and Foerste is genuinely adorable without slipping into the Dreaded Hollywood Kid Cutesies.

Truly, there's nothing new or earth-shattering about Mostly Martha; despite the subtitles, it's the kind of pleasantly predictable comedy/drama that Hollywood tries to churn out approximately 45 weeks of the year (production falls off somewhat in the summertime months, when the dream factory turns its attention to Will Smith movies in which things blow up every few minutes). But while we've seen feel-good pictures like Mostly Martha many times before, it has been a long time since one actually made us feel good. Mostly Martha does, and that's saying something in this grumpy old world.

Mostly Martha was directed and written by Sandra Nettelbeck; and stars Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castellitto and Maxime Foerste. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Costa Mesa.

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