Like water for noodles

Brittany Murphy really has the worst luck with men. In Uptown Girls she gets dumped by a rock star for an older model, in Little Black Book she discovers that her boyfriend has dodgy secrets and in Sin City Clive Owen, her supposed beau, ends up snogging Rosario Dawson. The only decent man for her so far seems to have been a tone-deaf, twinkle-toed penguin in kiddie movie Happy Feet.

So it should come as no surprise that in The Ramen Girl the pouty Murphy is once again on the wrong end of a break-up, as the hapless, direction-less Abby. Even worse, it happens two weeks after she’s arrived in Tokyo, which, funnily enough, she traveled to in order to be with Ethan (Gabriel Mann), the ungrateful love rat who prides himself on being a “traveler” and someone who can fit his life in two suitcases. And callously dump someone after one last night of fun, presumably.

So what’s a girl to do? While gazing forlornly from her balcony, the ramen shop across the road inexplicably glows a warm red color (quite possibly due to beer goggles), beckoning Abby over. After being served a pity bowl of ramen by the grumpy ramen chef Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida), and receiving a friendly wave from a maneki neko (lucky cat ornament), our leading lady experiences a noodle epiphany: She must learn how to make ramen. She wants to be able to make people happy the way Maezumi does, instead of copyediting hilariously misphrased signs at a Japanese law firm, which apparently is just another in a series of short-term jobs since she graduated college four years ago.

And so The Ramen Girl’s plot wheels begin turning in a sort of Karate Kid-like Water for Chocolate (or any other magical food movie) mash-up, as we watch Abby endure absurd trials under Maezumi’s relentless tyranny, from scrubbing urinals at the crack of dawn to having her cute pink mobile phone crushed under her master’s clogs. At one point she wonders if she’s being a moron putting up with all this, and you may just be thinking the same thing.

Slight diversions to the ramen quest include Abby’s growing popularity with the shop’s patrons; her romance with a handsome Korean-Japanese salaryman (Sohee Park); a mysterious photo of a boy that Maezumi secretly weeps over; two strange expats, Charlie (Daniel Evans) and Gretchen (a shamefully wasted Tammy Blanchard, best known as Matt Damon’s deaf girlfriend in The Good Shepherd), with whom Abby occasionally socializes; and a father-and-son team of ramen rivals (Renji Ishibashi and Takanobu Keneko) who wish to buy Maezumi’s shop.

Supposedly, the movie is more than about mastering the art of ramen, it’s probably also meant to be about cultural, linguistic and generation gaps and finding one’s purpose in life. At one point Gretchen, a sultry cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a cartoon geisha, cynically remarks that “the only way to survive in this country is to do what everyone else does… drink”, in a scene that’s ostensibly meant to demonstrate hers and Abby’s isolation amid Japanese culture. But most of these details are told instead of being shown, and a few threads go nowhere, making for a very unsatisfying cinematic dish.

The Ramen Girl isn’t entirely unpalatable. Despite Murphy’s increasingly questionable taste in roles, she retains a unique watchability, and Nishida as her taskmaster is occasionally amusing in a cantankerous sort of way.

Plus most of the supporting characters are sweet, if two-dimensional, particularly Harumi, an Asian Jack Black-type (Ken Maedi) who has a crush on the titular ramen girl, and Maezumi’s tolerant wife Reiko (Kimiko Yo).

There are also a few eye-catching scenes, such as when Maezumi whips up a batch of ramen, with angel-hair like noodles against cloud-like steam, or a Christmas scene at a mall involving a Japanese Elvis.

Sadly, this sprinkling of quality ingredients is just not enough to justify a whole movie, which means the normally reasonable 102-minute running time starts feeling like a lifetime about an hour in.

Like Abby herself, The Ramen Girl seems to lack purpose and direction, and like most of her ramen attempts, it’s rather bland. You’d be better off watching similarly themed Tampopo (1985), an infinitely more delicious Japanese noodle comedy.

One star out of five.

The Ramen Girl (2009, Media 8 Entertainment, 102 minutes)
Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman
Written by Becca Topol
Starring Brittany Murphy, Sohee Park, Toshiyuki Nishida, Tammy Blanchard, Kimiko Yo, Renji Ishibashi, Gabriel Mann

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