Some of the best romantic comedies begin with people so desperately lonely and cut-off that you can imagine them being carted off to an asylum or jumping from a bridge. Martha Klein (Martina Gedick), the title character of Mostly Martha (Paramount Classics), seems headed that way. A renowned Hamburg chef, she stretches out on a couch and tells her psychiatrist about pig bladders simmered in Madeira with roasted wild mushrooms, about the affinity of truffles for the musky meat of pigeon. She says she wants to cook for him. Her shrink tries to change the subject, but she doesn't want to talk about her life. Her life is art, which is her cooking.
The movie, directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, shares her severity: That's what makes it so grim—and paradoxically, so funny. Martha's restaurant, Lido, is high-end Italian, but no kitchen in Italy would be this immaculate. The dining area is spare in its elegance, with dark-wood floors and cream walls and matching tablecloths. It's not a fun place. When a customer complains that the foie gras is too rare, she tells him the precise temperature to which it has been cooked. She also tells him it's pearls before swine, and she'll never cook for him again.
Martha is beautiful and sexy, too: She's so tightly wound she has a touch of hysteria, which makes her alluring. But she's closed and likely to stay that way—lonely and comfortable in her neurotically sealed universe. (She's only seeing a therapist because the owner of the Lido has commanded it.) Then tragedy breaks through. Her sister is killed in an auto accident, and there's no one but Martha to take custody of her 8-year-old daughter Lina (Maxime Foerste), whose father lives in Italy and doesn't know she exists. Martha proves helpless with the child. She can only reach out by cooking, but the little girl is numb with grief and won't eat a bite; her clothes get baggier, her eyes hollow.
Watching an 8-year-old starve is not exactly sure-fire comic material, but MostlyMartha is in the tradition of TheShop Around the Corner (1940) and this summer's About a Boy: It features people nearly paralyzed by melancholy. These are characters for whom a happy ending is the gift of a God who functions like a puckish real-estate agent: "Over here we have the pit of hell. Dreadful, isn't it? I'm sure you'll be happier over here." The movie doesn't have many laughs—but it leaves you laughing, the way people sometimes do when they're teetering over the abyss. And it has an Italian up its sleeve. After her sister's funeral, Martha returns to Lido to find a new sous-chef named Mario (Sergio Castellitto)—a liquid-eyed Italian who livens up the kitchen by blasting "Volare" and exuberantly tossing big bowls of pasta. She thinks he's a lunatic. He thinks she's a nut case who can't possibly give a child a real home. You see where this is leading.
I wasn't looking forward to a movie about a cold and punctilious professional female who is warmed up by a little girl and an Italian sous-chef who sings along to "Volare." It smacks of the backlash against feminism. But I think the movie is less about the cold fragility of the female professional than of the artist who uses her talent to keep the world at arm's length. And its uninsistence becomes it. If an American director had made Mostly Martha, it would be soft and squishy with honeyed imagery and a lot of violins. But the film has been shot in a chill, depressive style. The camera keeps a rigorous distance, and the soundtrack is mostly a plaintive cello. The German reserve and Italian extroversion are in just the right balance. The movie exists on a tantalizing border—and I don't mean Switzerland. It reminded me of how, during a summer-long European sojourn, I was relieved to get to Germany after four weeks of pathologically aggressive Italian drivers and trains that came and went as if by chance—and how, after a few weeks in Germany, I couldn't wait to cross back over the Italian border and let out a whoop. The Germans and the Italians are symbiotic: Each makes you appreciate the other.
There's another reason that Mostly Martha cuts so deep: It speaks to one's helplessness around children—a theme that's both funny and sobering. As Lina, Foerste does an exquisite job of staying inside herself; you never catch her acting, yet she moves from near-catatonia to sheer little-girlishness and back. And Gedick as Martha can seem 50 fathoms deep inside herself, too. It's Martha's privilege when she's single to protect and preserve her personality disorders in the name of her art. But you have to be emotionally available to kids or you risk driving them underground. And anyway, a great chef doesn't have to be anal retentive. Just look at that romantic teddy bear Mario.
OK, Mario is too good to be true. But Castellitto gives him a touch of mournfulness that grounds him and makes you think there's something more to his story. He blindfolds Martha and feeds her soup and asks her to identify the ingredients. And Martha, the control freak who needs to cook for people but has never liked anyone cooking for her, begins to relax and open up. Mostly Martha isn't a foodie movie like Tampopo(1985) and Babette's Feast(1987) and Big Night (1996): It shows how food can be a barrier as well as a bridge. But it makes you hungry for contact—for the haute cuisine of romantic comedy in a fast-food universe.
Speaking of love-starved universes, the one in One Hour Photo (Fox Searchlight) is a doozy. Poor Sy (Robin Williams), a photo clerk-technician at a Wal-Mart-like discount store, has no life to speak of. He lives, in fact, through the photos he develops, especially those of the Yorkins, a picture-perfect upper-middle-class family who represent the world to which Sy yearns to belong. At first, he seems merely creepily solicitous toward Mrs. Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and her young boy, Jake. It's only when we follow him to his dreary urban apartment that we see his affection borders on psychosis: He has a huge wall of Yorkin snapshots spanning at least a decade. He's a Kodak stalker!
The director, Mark Romanek, has made a slasher movie with delusions of grandeur. This is the outsider-inside genre of Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Stepfather (1987) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), but without the cheesy melodrama. The problem is, I'm fond of the cheesy melodrama; I love the straight-to-video B thriller Hider in the House (1989), with Gary Busey as a psychotic ex-con who secretes himself in the attic of a similarly picture-perfect family and develops an unhealthy obsession with their well-being. Not only is Busey extraordinary—reasonable and crazy in gorgeous proportions—but the movie builds to a big, bloody climax in which one's sympathies are sadly divided. He may be a psycho, but he has more soul than the family whose life he menaces.
One Hour Photo is considerably more arch and anemic. The film is visually worked out to within an inch of its life, but after 15 minutes you can see where it's going, and along the way there are no surprises. Romanek, who's famous for his Nine Inch Nails music videos, has crafted a meticulous visual essay, with a palpable tension between the messiness of real life and the hopeful idealism of photography. He concocts some good, queasy moments between Williams and the tall and goddessy Nielsen, who simply isn't on the same plane as him. (She's like Titania to Willliams' ass-headed Bottom.) The question that pervades the film is: Will Sy resort to violence when he discovers that Mr. Yorkin is having an affair, and that his illusory family-values world is no longer intact?
My response: Who cares? If the comedy in Mostly Martha is richer for its aura of pathos, the pathos of One Hour Photo would be more complex with a jolt of comedy. Romanek hits the same grim note over and over, and Williams' performance is similarly constrained. He has a fringe of reddish blond hair and a froggy physiognomy; and his lovableness is undercut by his hard steel-rimmed glasses and the cruel set of his mouth. I know that some people are tired of Williams the sweatily insecure standup and that they'll hail this performance as a breakthrough in self-control. But the uncontrolled Williams, however uneven, is a genius. Williams the self-effacing "straight" actor is a dull little man indeed. And when Romanek attempts to invest Sy's worldview with the kind of specious New Age spirituality of American Beauty (1999), he enters a pseuds' corner all his own. One Hour Photo is overexposed.
Simone (New Line), the story of a has-been movie director (Al Pacino) who's fed up with real, live prima donnas and hitches his star to a "cyberthesp"—a digitized agglomeration of other actresses—has a wonderful sci-fi farce premise. But the writer-director, Andrew Niccol, has nothing as low as farce on his mind. In his kindergarten Philip K. Dick way (he mined Dick for his script to The Truman Show ), Niccol wants us to see Simone as a comic meditation on the artificiality of the real world versus the increasing emotional reality of artifice. "Simone"—who looks like a Borg babe on Star Trek: Voyager with Claire Forlani's willowy frame—is supposed to catch on with the public in a way that no real actress can. But Niccol has forgotten to write her any scenes that could make her fame even remotely plausible. "I am the death of the real," she says, from the computer screen. No kidding. She looks like a vacant model in a series of overdesigned car commercials, and the people who genuflect over her ethereal greatness look like idiots.
Actually, the whole movie looks like an overdesigned car commercial—even bluer and more claustrophic than Niccol's Gattaca (1997). The premise cries out for take-no-prisoners, Terry-Southern-style sick humor; it gets instead a lot of clunky, self-congratulatory in-jokes, and Pacino is left to ham in a vacuum. Niccol blows what could have been the only inspired gag. "Simone" is supposed to learn to act by mimicking her director's line readings, and the thought of a sex-goddess with Pacino's manic, distended timing has real possibilities. You can imagine her inspiring a book by Norman Mailer at the very least.