Frau Ella: Film Review

Local star power compensates for an overly familiar storyline in this German road-trip movie.

German director Markus Goller's hit comedy-drama is another slickly produced star vehicle for affable everyman actor Matthias Schweighoefer.

A young Berlin taxi driver who's been dumped by his pregnant girlfriend embarks on -- what else? -- a road trip to France with a sick old lady and his nattily clad best bud in the German hit comedy Frau Ella.

Editor-turned-director Markus Goller (Friendship!) directs this star vehicle for the increasingly popular German Everyman actor Matthias Schweighoefer -- think Til Schweiger 2.0 -- and it’s a pleasant and not-too-bumpy ride for the most part for both the characters and the audience, even though originality is not a quality anyone involved here seems to ever suspect the existence of. As the film piles on cliches about relationships, hospitals, road trips and friendships, Goller has to rely on the undeniable star power of Schweighoefer to smooth things over. Somewhat shockingly, the overly familiar screenplay, credited to Dirk Ahner, is based on a bestselling novel penned by Florian Beckerhoff, who must be the German equivalent of Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins combined.

Released in Germany Oct. 17, this hotly anticipated local comedy dethroned Gravity as the week’s most-visited film upon release and lost less than 10 percent of its audience in its second week. But unfortunately, and unlike the unexpected 2010 road-trip hit Vincent Wants to Sea, Frau Ella lacks that spark of individuality needed to make inroads into non-Germanophone territories.

Though the film's named after Mrs. Ella (Ruth Maria Kubitschek), its true protagonist is early thirty-something Sascha (Schweighoefer), who quit med school some years ago and is now a taxi driver. When his girlfriend, Lina (Anna Bederke, seen earlier this year in Schlussmacher, which Schweighoefer co-directed and starred in), announces she's pregnant, he freaks out and crashes his car. When he's taken to the hospital, the snoring Mrs. Ella, a technology-challenged, 87-year-old stranger, occupies a second bed in what was supposed to be a private room.

Things are predictably prickly between them initially, at least for Sascha, though when he realizes the hospital is making her undergo an unnecessary and possibly dangerous operation, he tries to help her, finally going so far as to kidnap her and take her home. A couple of plot twists later -- notably a tempestuous visit from Lina, who sends Sascha packing -- and the unlikely duo find themselves in the vintage car of Sascha’s bohemian-chic, girlfriend-challenged roommate, Klaus (August Diehl), who tags along.

Their trip to France, inspired by a story from Mrs. Ella's younger years, is filled with the familiar scenes from countless other mismatched-duo films and road movies and desperately needs Schweighofer's star charisma to sustain interest. This is not in any way meant to demean the efforts of Kubitschek, who's pluckily adorable in that hip grandma kind of way, but doesn’t disappoint in the more dramatic scenes either, and the delightful Diehl (Salt, Inglourious Basterds), a versatile young character actor who often manages to flesh out his supporting parts in interesting ways.

The script -- and editor Simon Gstoettmayr -- struggle to find the right balance between Mrs. Ella's trip with Sascha and the story of Lina, who's absent for long stretches, and Maurus Ronner and Martin Todsharow's piano-driven score is initially a little too plaintive for what's supposed to be more of a comedy than a drama. But in the end, the sheer likability of the characters does win out.

Production companies: Pantaleon Entertainment, Warner Brothers Film Productions Germany
Cast: Matthias Schweighoefer, Ruth Maria Kubitschek, August Diehl, Anna Bederke
Director: Markus Goller
Screenwriter: Dirk Ahner, screenplay based on the novel by Florian Beckerhoff
Producers: Matthias Schweighoefer, Marco Beckmann, Dan Maag
Director of photography: Ueli Steiger
Production designer: Christian Eisele
Music: Maurus Ronner, Martin Todsharow
Costume designer: Janne Birck
Editor: Simon Gstoettmayr
No rating, 104 minutes.