-By David Noh

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Perfectionist chef extraordinaire Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) has her workaholic life rearranged with the arrival of Lina (Maxime Foerste), the daughter of her sister, tragically killed in a car wreck. Martha is clueless about children and even her ability to cook is no help as the distraught Lina refuses to eat. Additionally, two men intrude on Martha's loveless existence: Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), her new neighbor whom she finds disturbingly attractive, and Mario (Sergio Castellito), a new sous-chef at her restaurant, whose flamboyantly earthy style clashes with hers and threatens her professionally.

In Mostly Martha, writer-director Sandra Nettlebeck fashions a fluffy career-woman romance with a very elegant veneer. Michael Bertl's gleaming cinematography makes the most of the hyper-chic Hamburg restaurant in which Martha toils, as well as the mouth-watering dishes she whips up (Duck foie gras! Monkfish à l'armoricaine!). As these culinary flicks often go, the food is, by far, the most compelling thing on the screen, with the magnificent logic of scrupulously adhered-to master recipes and piquant additions of the perfect spices being both ultimately photogenic and riveting. The story itself is somewhat less so, rather predictable and afflicted with dashes of rather heavily Teutonic whimsy. You just know how this will all pan out in the end, with Lina giving up her recalcitrant ways and Martha succumbing to Mario's wacky, oh-so-Italianate blandishments. The thinness of the plot becomes even more so when spread out over 107 minutes, admittedly not an epic length, but here subject to decided longeurs.

Gedeck is handsome and appealing in the titular role, never more so than when she angrily deals with obnoxious, know-it-all gourmand clients, to the horror of her boss (played by Sibylle Canonica with amusingly harried verve). The solemn little Foerste is a thankfully natural child actor, wholly ungiven to cutesiness. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the hyper-consciously impish Castellitto, who is somewhat afflicted by what one can only term a severe case of Benigni-itis. (His performance rather matches the too-busy, song-ridden music score.) Thomsen makes a quietly gallant, far more appealing romantic candidate, and Martha's passing him over seems questionable, to say the least.

-David Noh

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