Swimming on a Full Stomach

'Mostly Martha' is a gourmet meal next to the shallow 'Swimfan'

How heartwarming it is that kids returning to school after summer break have a movie that makes teen sex look even scarier than SATs. In Swimfan, championship swimmer and scholarship bait Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) finds himself involved, somewhat inadvertently, with the new girl in school--a mysterious, cello-playing hottie named Madison Bell (Erika Christensen, the stoned prepster from Traffic). Although he adores his beautiful girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby), Ben succumbs to a wanton tryst with Madison and even, at her prompting, declares his love for her. As swim-team groupies go, Madison is a bit on the intense side. She sends Ben zillions of e-mails (her handle is "swimfan85"), many of them containing naked pictures of herself; she frames him for steroid use; she visits his house and says, "It's so nice to finally meet your mom." If Madison initially seems to be an adolescent incarnation of Glenn Close's rabbit-boiling witch from Fatal Attraction, the difference is that the kid doesn't appear to suffer from rejection. In fact, Swimfan halfheartedly implies that stalking is just another extracurricular activity for the girl--something to do when she's not playing the cello.

Most teen horror movies take place in an idealized world--the terror presumably being greater when the psycho is slashing his way through paradise. But in Swimfan, the hero's own recent past is shady--full of juvenile crime and substance abuse--and even his privileges are oddly stripped of their wonder. There's almost no joy in Ben's relationship with Amy; his buddies say so little that they seem more like competitors; and even his coach (Dan Hedaya) is gruff and sour. Likewise, the swim fan doesn't exactly come across as a wet dream. Lacking the expected measure of lust, Madison is merely "dark," her dutifully neurotic demeanor seemingly modeled after the movie's own steely morbidity.

Did teenage test viewers compel the studio to steer Swimfan into shallow water? Much of the film's drama simply fails to make sense. At one point, Ben arrives at school and is greeted by armies of student extras staring at him with obvious disgust. Something is up, it would seem: Maybe Ben was recruited by Fox talent scouts to star in a teensploitation soaper, and the kids are jealous. But no: The good girl, we discover, has found out about the bad girl. Are we supposed to believe that Amy rallied the entire student body to her cause within a matter of minutes? It's a measure of the movie's contempt for its young audience that the kids in Swimfan do what they're told. But something tells me the weekend box-office figures will tell a different story.

 

Few genres tend to be more soul-sucking than the food-based romantic comedy, which replaces human interaction with pretty pictures of the perfect meal. But the German film Mostly Martha is something else: a food movie that hates other food movies. Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) is a top chef who prefers both her kitchen and her life to be organized and free of interlopers. When her sister dies suddenly (a moment treated so offhandedly that one can't help but crack a smile), Martha is stuck with her traumatized young niece (Maxime Foerste)--and a new element of uncertainty in her life. Then her restaurant is temporarily taken over by an irascible, disorganized Italian named Mario (Sergio Castellito).

There's little here that hasn't been seen before: Mario begins to bring both aunt and niece out of their shells, substituting big bowls of fun-loving pasta for Martha's exquisitely repressed salmon dishes. But director Sandra Nettelbeck knows to keep her eye on the main course: This is a movie not about food, but about people who eat it. Indeed, experiencing the back-and-forth between the dour Gedeck and the energetic Castellito is a lot more appetizing than watching another delicately prepared 12-course meal.

 
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