As I walked up to the Fine Arts Theater, I couldn’t entirely suppress a slight chuckle at the marquee’s bold proclamation of Mostly Martha’s star, Martina Gedeck. Indeed, when I went inside, I just had to ask, “So is Mostly Martha pulling in the Martina Gedeck crowd?” The irony is that while there isn’t, of course, a Martina Gedeck crowd, there damn well ought to be — at least if this film is any indication of her other work, much of which has been in German TV.
Mostly Martha itself is pleasant without being distinguished, intelligent without being intellectual, thoughtful without being profound and well-intentioned without being preachy. Almost nothing that occurs within its plot is apt to surprise anyone. Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck’s background — like her star’s — is largely in television, and while that doesn’t mean the same thing in European terms as it does in the U.S., Nettelbeck’s TV roots definitely show.
Her visual approach to a great deal of the proceedings is fairly flat, though she does seem to snap to attention whenever food comes into play (and it often does in a movie about a world-class chef), and she evidences a loving feel for the Germany depicted in her film. Similarly, her writing tends toward the comfortably familiar. In many ways, the film reminds me of a vastly improved Germanic version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding — with better characters, some genuine quirkiness and at least a measure of style. Not that there’s the slightest similarity in plot between the two movies, but that sense of cozy predictability and the apparent burning desire to wrap up everything in a tidy little package before the final fade-out is definitely in the blood-brother realm. The difference is that I truly enjoyed most of Mostly Martha — thanks in no small measure to Gedeck’s luminous screen presence — while I never got past merely tolerating My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Beyond Gedeck’s performance, Mostly Martha generally works because it’s populated with characters instead of types — it certainly isn’t scoring points with its plot. Gedeck plays Martha, a bossy head chef at a posh restaurant. Martha is a fascinating mix of self-assurance — to the point of thinking nothing of charging into the dining room and berating customers who dare to take issue with her cooking — and withdrawal, and is really a stranger to everyone, including herself. Among the conditions that her boss, Frida (Sybille Canonica), sets for Martha’s continued employment are weekly visits to a hapless psychiatrist (August Zirner) — appointments that Martha dutifully makes, despite having no clue as to why anyone would think she needs counseling.
Martha’s peculiarly insulated world is turned topsy-turvy when her sister is killed in a car crash, leaving her with a traumatized and incredibly stubborn 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerst). If this wasn’t bad enough, she also finds herself faced with a new chef in her kitchen — Mario (Sergio Castellito), an outgoing hired without Martha’s input and whom she immediately distrusts. Will Martha come to terms with her surrogate mother status? Will she and Lina discover that they really need each other? Will romance blossom between Martha and Mario? If you can’t answer these questions without pausing to think, then you’ve not seen very many movies.
However, the film manages to be better than its plot might suggest through the characterizations and performances, and through such pleasant quirks as the subplot involving Martha and her psychiatrist and an intriguing near-relationship between Martha and a new neighbor (Gerhard Garbers). There’s just enough insight at work to bring the film up a notch, and it’s impossible not to respond to the characters and their emotions. At least until the film’s almost disastrously literal wrap-up, all the characters afford the illusion of reality.
Mostly Martha isn’t a great movie. There are some notable flaws besides the predictability and the concluding scenes, not least of which is the lazy use of the same shapeless sub-Kenny G. tune to bridge nearly every scene in the film. But it’s such a dear, sweet little — little — movie that it’s hard not to forgive its shortcomings and just give in to its goodhearted pleasantness.