Mostly Martha (Germany 2002, 106 min, dir: Sandra Nettelbeck, cast: Martina Gedeck, August Zirner). No Reservations (USA 2007, 104 min, dir: Scott Hicks, cast Katherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart Bob Balaban)
An expensive meal in a posh restaurant leaves you full and poorer. Next morning, can you remember what you ate? These two films are a mash-up of good cooking and elegant service. So why does one delight and the other push us away from the table?
Let’s cut the cute talk. Mostly Martha is mostly director Sandra Nettelbeck coaxing a charming performance out of Martina Gedeck. If you think Gedeck is just another breezy actress who is a natural for this part, take a look at her in The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex. From neurotic chef who never has a hair out of place to brooding terrorist, she’s got an amazing range.
Then try Katherine Zeta-Jones in the same role, directed by Scott Hicks. It’s an easy comparison because both films have the same story almost scene for scene. Didn’t anybody say, “wait a minute, do we really need to copy even the song by Paolo Conte (Via con Me)? Martha is the lonely perfectionist who rules over a chic restaurant kitchen. Everything changes when her niece is suddenly orphaned and must come to live with her. Complications mean a sous chef needs to help her cook. Enter August Zirner (German version) and Aaron Eckhart (USA).
I kind of prefer Eckhart, even though he tries too hard. And Zeta-Jones is okay, even though Gedeck is more gegrubel (brooding). Mostly Martha was a big hit in Germany. No Reservations was a dud here. Why? Every Make & Remake comparison is different, but here I think it is about expectations. German audiences liked sexy aunt Martha slowly getting seduced by a man, and food. It’s Kultur (culture).
American audiences don’t give a shit about Kultur. If it’s food: there should be a lot of it, and if it sex: let’s get their clothes off. Here’s a place where a pie-in-the-face food fight followed by hot sex on the prep counter might have given us so memorable a scene that it would be endlessly played in those Academy Award clip reels of classic movies. But instead we got a gentle remake. Toss the souffle and gives us Ben & Jerry’s Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream ice cream. Fuck Kultur, Americans want to eat.