Max DeCurtins makes us hungry for the spendy dinners we used to have together in San Francisco with his well-seasoned review of Mostly Martha . . . and its comparatively bland American counterpart,No Reservations.

I do not weigh now what I weighed before coming to Boston to do my master’s degree. In Boston I learned—in addition to the checkered history of the Josquin canon, and how to mock ethnomusicology for managing to be, somehow, even less accessible than so-called “historical” musicology—to appreciate good beer, to cross Commonwealth Avenue without getting killed, to eat several orders too many of nachos at Sunset Cantina, and to stress the fuck out about a lot of different things. These things do not a healthy weight help.

Temporarily, and frustratingly, waylaid in my pursuit of a doctorate, I’ve set my sights, with the help of my oldest friend, on a more permanent goal: to shed 30% of my body weight. In this context, watching a European movie about food must seem a pretty stupid thing to do.

No, I don’t hungrily set my eyes upon the TVs tuned to the Food Network at the gym. Besides, they barely care about food. The Food Network has long since succumbed to the Deadliest Catch breed of show—exotic, with the potential for danger and drama, however manufactured or contrived. Up Next: watch Bobby Flay grill a 300-pound pig in a US Navy nuclear submarine 5,000 feet underwater! Michael Symon opens a restaurant at Mt. Everest base camp with nothing but a few propane tanks and an old pipe! Paula Deen goes to Tripoli! This fall, watch “My Most Compromising Moments with a Leg of Veal”! If one day the Food Network ever decides, say, to ditch Sandra Lee and hire John Larroquette to scare the shit out of people, I’ll watch.

No, watching a film like Mostly Martha proves decidedly more dangerous, because it deals with real food, simple food: salmon with basil sauce, sautéed new potatoes with rosemary, handmade pasta,antipasti. Food I can set my sights on making, and, all too easily, eating.

Like most of the movies I saw by swiping my mom’s Netflix DVDs before they went back in the mail, I don’t really remember now what I thought of the movie then. I probably thought it charming and, above all, obscure: a movie nobody this side of the Pond would ever hear about. But they should, because this little gem can contend with some of the better-known exemplars of the genre. Not the kind of romantic comedy that spills its goopy, sentimental guts out with passing references to food and exotic locales, like Eat Pray Love—which sounds like one of those ungapatsch “Live, Laugh, Love” pieces you can buy at Target—Mostly Martha shows healthy restraint and an excellent sense of timing. Martha herself says it early in the film: being a chef is all about precision and timing.

On Schmaltz

Schmaltz, n. (1) Rendered chicken fat, essential to the preparation of matzah balls and kasha varnishkes. [1] (2) Fig. Corniness, sentimental exaggeration.

 

Immersed in a gargantuan vat of schmaltz, Mostly Martha becomes as succulent and satisfying as duck confit. I won’t elaborate much on the plot, because it resembles, or figures into, every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. Martha (Martina Gedeck), a talented chef with a troublesome habit of terrorizing insolent diners at the Lido Restaurant, receives custody of her niece Lina (Maxime Foerste) after Lina’s mother dies in a car accident. Both stoic and stubborn, they grapple their way to fulfillment with the help of Mario (Sergio Castellitto—who sort of but not really resembles Jean Reno), the eccentric Italian chef who shakes up the quiet order in Martha’s kitchen, both at home and at the Lido, and gets Lina to break the hunger strike self-imposed since her mother’s death. A short period of relative happiness ensues, rudely interrupted by the arrival of Giuseppe, Lina’s father, the search for whom Martha had never conducted more than half-heartedly. Finally pushed over the edge, Martha flips out at the restaurant, enlists Mario’s help and drives to Italy with him—in one of those classically ugly European cars of the ‘90s—to reunite happily-ever-after with Lina in the end.

Mostly Martha has three strong devices that show a level of craftsmanship characteristic of high-quality romantic comedies. Number one on the list: Martha’s therapist, for whom Martha cooks out of nervous habit. These scenes delightfully stand the analyst-subject power structure on its head, and work especially thanks to their minimalism, with no music, fancy camerawork, etc. to get in the way. They also serve, like Martha’s bits of narration, to strengthen Martha’s character. Secondly, the film succeeds on the basis of the fun it pokes at European countries’ opinions of their neighbors, and of themselves. The precise and honest Germans—who face life with Vulcan-esque professionalism—mock the lackadaisical Italians, who can’t even show up to work on time. These moments, sometimes as simple as a dismissive “Oh. Italian?” from one of the German characters, count among the film’s best.

Finally, the food/chef-related gags also deserve credit. For example, as Martha sits down to her first meal with Lina, she compulsively wipes the edge of Lina’s plate like the commensurate chef. Later, Martha leaves Lina with a baby-sitter and, having prepped an entire mise-en-place, turns to the poor woman and declares: “All you have to do is heat it up. Here’s the recipe.” Lina, in the Lido kitchen, finds a few black truffles sitting on the counter. Wrinkling her nose at them, obviously thinking them regular mushrooms that have spoiled, she tosses them in the trash, nearly giving Martha a heart attack. After a perfectly romantic evening in which Mario and Lina occupy Martha’s kitchen—kicking her out of the one domain over which she has control—she re-enters the kitchen, which resembles a FEMA disaster area. W would have confidently pronounced a Heckuva-Job-Brownie on this kitchen. Martha takes one look and immediately suffers from an obsessive-compulsive anxiety attack.

As I re-view Mostly Martha ten years later, several things strike me as different. First, that my grasp on German has, to my pleasant surprise, improved to the point where I can follow discrete syntactical units, recognize major verb conjugations, and interpret idiomatic expressions. In no way do I thank my “Reading German for Graduate Students” class, which, almost entirely full of musicians and a few stray philosophy students, purports to turn you out after one semester with enough German knowledge to tackle voluminous academic journal articles. Natürlich.

Secondly, that however much I may have loved Martha’s home kitchen on first viewing, I love it even more now. Polished open wood shelves, plain white restaurant china, burnished copper pans, a kitchen with only well-worn, quality materials in an open, easy-to-access configuration—if that’s not sexy I don’t know what is. As I peer into the not-so-distant future, I can pointlessly envy that kitchen less and actively contemplate, via this dreary thing called a career, the possibility of setting up such a culinary space for myself.

Lastly, it strikes me that, for all its schmaltz, its wholehearted embrace of kitsch—right down to the saccharine sounds of the alto sax and the cheesy “Via con me” of Paolo Conte—Mostly Martha ranks among those few romantic comedies that have staying power. It sticks in the way that Love Actuallysticks: through the exacting manipulation of the genre and carefully attention to all the details—a slightly lengthened pause here, a well-placed foible there. As Martha says early in the film, referring to salmon in a light basil sauce: “Most people think it’s no big deal and put it on the menu. But frying or steaming a salmon just right and putting the right amount of salt and spices in the sauce is very difficult. In this recipe, there’s nothing to distract you. No design, no exotic ingredient. There’s only the fish. And the sauce. The fish, and the sauce.” This early bit of narration beautifully, and aptly, describes the style of Mostly Martha itself: having done away with nearly all the frippery of romantic comedy, it does what it does really well.

I Have Reservations

Though I’d never seen it, and despite the fact that only five years have passed since its release, not ten, I decided I had to inform my thoughts about Mostly Martha by watching its American version, No Reservations. That movie, on more than one occasion, had my hands covering my gaping jaw. When not covering my mouth, my hands searched vainly for something sharp with which to gouge out my eyes.

Martha has become Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Mario, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), and Lina, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). Every actor, like every musician, artist, writer, etc., has—or should have—a genre that, for the good of all mankind, they studiously avoid. Not for Zeta-Jones and Eckhart the romantic comedy. Add a script with almost no life of its own, as it fastidiously tries to replicate Mostly Martha, drench thoroughly in fulsome New York City self-love, and toss to coat. Where Mostly Martha focused on the Martha-Lina relationship, No Reservations seems more interested in the Kate-Nick relationship. The characters themselves feel far less developed. Occasionally, it’s outright inaccurate. [2] This movie simply does not work.

The music alone accounts for a number of jaw-dropping moments. “Via con me” remains, in what seems to be a later recording by Paolo Conte (you can almost hear the laziness induced by commercial success in the performance). The “score” purports to be by Philip Glass, yet sounds in places like the bastard cousin of Yann Tiersen’s music for Amélie. And then there’s the opera. I really like opera. So you can imagine my pain when, dining alone in the restaurant and sharing a bottle of wine, Nick asks Kate if she really never drinks at work, and we get “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from La Traviata. God, the pain. And what opera-sporting film is complete without a little “Nessun dorma”?

As I wrote earlier, Mostly Martha succeeds in no small part on the basis of its mockery of European stereotypes of other Europeans, a level of nuance that flies far over the heads of the American public. Despite its New York setting—a city that loves to gush about its international character—No Reservations has no use for such gags. I also have reservations about telling this story in English; Europeans tend to cast linguistically accurate people in their movies: when you need an Italian speaker, you get an Italian. An Italian bilingual in German, no less. Sorry Aaron, I don’t care how floppy your hair is; I don’t buy you as an ambassador for la bella Italia. [3] Perhaps most sad of all: in the English version, we don’t get to hear that quintessentially German exclamation: “Wir brauchen ein Krankenwagen!”

Watching No Reservations has greatly increased my respect for Mostly Martha. Romantic comedy as a genre has an unusually high number of potential pitfalls and traps that can send a movie from charming to cliché in less time than it takes to say “Hugh Grant’s ass.” As many of these pitfalls Mostly Martha deftly sidesteps, No Reservations smacks into them at speed. If Mostly Martha is saccharine yet solid, No Reservations is Billy Balsam getting a fatal dunking in his own vat of saltwater taffy. If you’re going to watch a food-related movie from 2007, watch Ratatouille.

What is that Smell?

I smell a trope. Two, in fact. First, I take issue with the idea that the story of Martha had to end up as a romantic comedy. It could well have stood on its own as a story about adult-child bonding. I don’t normally go in for reading too much into things—a caution ingrained in me by my musical studies, as music perhaps more than any other art suffers from armchair ascriptions; music isn’t about anything—but especially after watching the odiferous No Reservations I can’t escape the thought that the trope of the missing male runs deep in this story. As an adult-child bonding story, we could have had a perfectly compelling picture of a woman and a young girl who exist independently. Martha helps Lina come to grips with her mother’s death, and Lina helps Martha discover her latent parental capacity, and even how to relax a little. The movie could have been about how each gives the other the fulfillment otherwise lacking in her life.

But, apparently, we still have need of a man, the right man, who absolves the sin of the absent father and offers the key to happiness. Most visibly, we have the downstairs neighbor, an honest, modest, self-confident man with children of the niece’s age. Martha cruelly rebuffs him even as she secretly finds him attractive, a potential male source of stability and perhaps wisdom. As if to drive home this point, No Reservations makes the neighbor, Sean, a hunky Irish divorcé with twin boys. In any other romantic comedy, the ladies would go weak in the knees for him. In Mostly Martha, Giuseppe appears as a token nod to the return of the absent father, but in the end Lina has a far greater attachment to Mario. The message seems to say that what Martha really wants is to be at least partially dependent on a male figure, that what Lina wants is not merely a biological parent, but a father.

And now for the other trope: in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain writes of his first experiences of real Italian food during his brief time working with Pino Luongo. While short of transcendental, one can certainly describe Bourdain’s reaction as spiritually nourishing, a renaissance of his joie de vivre. The concept of Italy as a place where one takes one’s beleaguered soul for a tune-up, and/or of Italian food as a restorative agent for cynical or overwrought tastes, has many manifestations across the film and mass-market bubble-bath paperback worlds. This Italian trope has always bothered me: shut up already and go get lost in Siena or Le Cinque Terre. This is exactly the kind of thing that Bourdain now does (on a cable network’s dime) on his Travel Channel show No Reservations, though more than likely he’s somewhere exotic and slightly dangerous, such as Beirut or Phnom Penh. This strikes me as an extremely well-funded search for the ever-more-elusive transformative experience.

A rather similar transformation involving Italian food plays out in Mostly Martha. Where once she scoffed at the idea of gnocchi in sage butter, she soon finds herself eating—off the floor, no less!—classic antipasti: asparagus with prosciutto, grilled eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers, trenette al pesto. I find this intolerable: no sane person refuses expertly-made gnocchi in sage butter.

So, yeah. As I endeavor to shed enough pounds to get me within spitting distance of the weight that’s listed on my driver’s license, I’ve now watched, stupidly, not one but two films about food. God, somebody get me a bowl of fresh pasta.

[1. All you goyim will now Google “kasha varnishkes.”]

[2. Example: In no restaurant of that caliber would the chef de cuisine regularly double as the pastry chef. People searing duck breasts do not stop to adorn a dessert with a sugar lattice.]

[3. After reading Erik Jaccard’s recent re-view of “Possession,” I’m wholly inclined to agree with him about Eckhart’s hair. Can we get a Best Supporting Role Oscar over here?]

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