DVD Review: The Ramen Girl (2008)

An American in Japan:
To Noodles With Love
Arriving on DVD

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A.K.A. The Ramen girl

Simultaneously able to break your heart (a la Girl Interrupted) and melt it at the exact same time simply by being her free-spirited and spunky self (yes, even in Love and Other Disasters and Uptown Girls)-- it's always been a wonder to me why Brittany Murphy has never managed to become a big box office star.

Yet, in the same token, it's most likely to her benefit and credit that she's that talented of an actress that we often forget that the same (then) girl who learns the joys of shopping in Amy Heckerling's refreshingly sophisticated teen movie Clueless is the same actress who eerily cooed "I'll never tell" to Michael Douglas in Don't Say A Word before the petite pixie stood up to Benicio Del Toro as her abusive married police officer boyfriend in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

And now she's adding the role of producer to her resume with this unusual tale from Media 8 Entertainment and Digital Site Corporation that's hitting DVD shelves from Image Entertainment. Murphy-- the woman who once beat out an impressive bevy of A-list stars for the hotly coveted lead role in the now forgotten biopic about Janis Joplin-- crops up this week in the Japanese/American production The Ramen Girl.

Having worked steadily over the years primarily in the independent and offbeat realm and usually in romantic roles that showcase her innate sweetness-- it seems apparent that Murphy obviously latched onto the five-time Emmy nominated television director Robert Allan Ackerman's debut feature film The Ramen Girl for all the right reasons.

Working from newcomer Becca Topol's original screenplay, Ramen takes the framework of a romantic comedy but leaves those two requisite ingredients (of romance and comedy) on the counter in lieu of a female empowerment screenplay. At its core, Topol's Ramen is about a young woman trying to "find" herself after being dumped in Tokyo and it's a fetching Under the Tuscan Sun paradigm that must have appealed to Murphy since it reveals its true nature shortly into a movie that on the surface is decorated like a typical rom-com.

Although the press release describes the film as "Tampopo meets Lost in Translation," and it aims more for drama than the promised "hilarious culture clash" described in the introduction, the film will strike an instantly familiar chord with those who've experienced Like Water for Chocolate, Waitress, Last Holiday, Chocolat, Simply Irresistible, The Mistress of Spices, and Woman on Top.

Unfortunately and despite Murphy's considerable charm, it's nowhere near as successful as Water, Last Holiday, Waitress, Chocolat, and Spices as Topol crafts one of the most unlikable "mentors" in recent memory to serve as the film's anti-Mr. Miyagi in the role that poor Toshiyuki Nishida is saddled with as the angry and often drunk, fond of hitting, ruthless curmudgeon.

When the bright and bubbly Abby journeys to Japan to be with her techie boyfriend Ethan (Gabriel Mann) in a move we soon gather that was more her idea than Ethan's, she's stunned to find herself on the receiving end of a cliched "I'm a traveler," I need space styled break-up.

Leaving her stranded in a strange city where she knows only two of his friends (the obligatory gay guy and a dramatic diva) and can barely make small talk with the aid of a Japanese to English dictionary-- instead of getting on the next plane back to the states, Abby's denial continues. And in a painful to watch series of events, she optimistically continues phoning Ethan until one night, she finds herself strangely drawn into a ramen noodle shop run by the ornery Maezumi (Nishida).

Wandering in after hours and greeted with his angry drunken shouts in Japanese, the fragile Abby breaks down into helpless tears but is soon transformed when Maezumi and his wife serve her his own special bowl of ramen noodles. Ignoring the airline ticket her parents have purchased for her return-- seemingly illogically and still in shock from the departure of Ethan-- Abby begins to return to the ramen shop regularly, helping out when she can until she makes a seemingly impulsive decision that she wants to become a ramen chef to make people smile and laugh the way that the chef does (when he isn't drunk or hitting people that is).

Going as far as to lock Abby out of the restaurant, trying to scare her off with endless countless of dirty dishes to clean, toilet bowls to scrub by hand on her knees, and an increasingly humiliating set of tasks-- the chef is as amazed by Abby's persistence as we are that she remains in the shop.

Topol's script and Ackerman's film starts with potential as an amusingly offbeat tale about a young woman who starts to find her true self in a place where the only thing she's able to translate is emotion and feels that perhaps ramen noodles are far superior to mispronounced phrases and crying jags. However, soon it becomes a patience testing study of just how much punishment Muphy's character will take from a man who regularly hits and rough-handles her.

And similar to a military picture, we gather it's all "part of the training" to see if Abby has what it takes but Topol's attempts to humanize the cruel chef are few and far between making our heroine seem a bit weaker and unheroic in her willingness to continue to serve as a masochistic glutton for punishment.

While perhaps some greater glimpse into her home-life would help us better understand the reason she remains in the shop-- (and indeed on the DVD's extra features, you do catch a phone conversation with her nagging never seen mother that does assist in this process)-- nonetheless, it still makes a trying feature to sit through clocking in at a mere 102 minutes.

Although a minor romantic subplot is added in for good measure and perhaps to try and make us smile every once in awhile-- ultimately by its halfway point, we realize that like a recipe that needs some adjusting, Topol's script wasn't quite ready for the oven by the time Ramen Girl went into production.

And while I do love her premise and much like Love and Other Disasters Murphy is the right choice to elevate weak material-- in the end, Abby's character arc was in desperate need of little more spunk a la Queen Latifah's ambitious yet also emotionally tested foodie in Last Holiday or Keri Russell's spirited turn in Waitress which would've strengthened Ackerman's picture.

Moreover, there's so much wasted potential that-- if strung together tighter and played upon-- would've augmented it considerably in the form of a great "girl power" under-utilized alliance Murphy has with the chef's wife and Tammy Blanchard's dramatic diva. The friendships-- if handled correctly-- could've done for Ramen what the Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, and Judi Dench friendship did for Chocolat and likewise, Topol's direct magic realist Like Water for Chocolate homage (including one alternate ending) feel like they were so cribbed from Esquivel and Arau's source material that there could be a lawsuit on Topol's hands. But luckily as evidenced in the weak but amusing Sarah Michelle Gellar film Simply Irresistible, the idea of a cook's emotional state somehow passing through to the food and into those who digest it has already been utilized before.

While far from a complete disaster and instead, one of those movies that's so maddeningly close to having been something so special that it's worth exploring on that level alone-- in the end, Ramen reminds women and writers that the addition of a romance or a handsome "prince" isn't an arc that should be used to ever define a main female character.

Gorgeously transferred to digital form for its debut on DVD to the highest of widescreen quality, the disc offers the addition of the film's trailer, the alternate ending (that REALLY gave off a Like Water for Chocolate vibe that would've greatly altered the tone of the movie) and a few deleted scenes. Ultimately, Murphy's first effort as a producer fails to nourish or satisfy the way a delicious bowl of ramen noodles should but it makes great food for thought as we examine the ingredients and imagine the concoction it should've been if the timing had been right before it hit the oven.

Brittany Murphy