washingtonpost.com
'Martha Behind Bars': The Jailbird Who Famously Feathered Her Nest

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Martha Behind Bars" -- does anyone really wonder which "Martha" that's bound to be? -- is not only a disappointment but something of a cheat. By rough calculation, Martha's only behind bars for 30 minutes of the picture, which is but a third of it with commercial time subtracted.

Compared with that depressing statistic, it's only a minor discrepancy that there are, in fact, no bars. Not so's you'd notice. Inmates, all women, at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp to which Martha Stewart is sentenced for five months, occupy less formal sorts of cells. They're cinderblock cubicles, really, without big clanging doors. Stewart's even has a window with a pleasant view of the world outside.

The film, CBS's Sunday night movie at 9 on Channel 9, is a virtual but not official sequel. "Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart," which covered Stewart's rise to prominence as America's scrappiest happy homemaker -- and also benefited greatly from having Cybill Shepherd in the lead role -- aired on NBC in May 2003. Since then, of course, Stewart's immaculately configured and tastefully appointed world came tumbling down, Stewart having been found guilty of obstruction and other charges related to an insider trading scandal.

Where the previous movie aspired to be a camp classic, "Martha Behind Bars" takes itself more seriously, and less entertainingly. There aren't scenes to equal the crowd-pleasers of the first film, as when Stewart tossed a copper pot at a disloyal underling or hurled the "b" word (the five-letter one) at the mother of a young woman she suspected of philandering with her hubby. It was a drive-by spewing.

About the closest the new film gets is a fairly delicious sequence set in prison -- a Christmas decorating contest that the fellow members of Stewart's cell block feel they have absolutely no chance of losing. After all, they have the queen of arts and crafts in their midst. Imagine their chagrin and disgruntlement at winning second place, not to mention Stewart's personal outrage and horror. She knew prison would be no picnic -- but a living hell like this?!

The salt in the wound: The winning entry stinks. Just some gloppy old gingerbread house or something, a sodden lump when contrasted with Stewart's graceful little origami bird mobiles. Prison is, of course, insulting and demeaning, but Stewart doesn't face as many comeuppances as one might expect. She learns, the hard way, not to bring them on herself. After leaving the showers and complaining to a guard that "there's no shower slippers and the floors -- well, they're beyond disgusting," Stewart is given the job of cleaning them on her hands and knees.

"Bad girl, bad girl, Martha was a bad girl," the other prisoners chant.

Shepherd's performance as Stewart this time out is heftier both in physical terms (prompting one to wonder if she gained weight for the part or failed to lose enough for it) and dramatic. She artfully mimics Stewart's revealing mannerisms, including the regal walk and the straight-ahead stare -- outward expression of her stubborn unflappability, which crystallizes in Stewart's famous-last-words declaration to lawyers preparing her case, "I am not going to jail."

By the movie's account, she needn't have gone and could have avoided it if she'd only accepted a deal offered by the prosecution: Admit one mistake, lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and earn a lighter-than-air sentence. But no. Admit one mistake? Sacre bleu !

"I've done nothing wrong," she insists, proving herself even better at egotistical self-delusion than at making origami birds.

Too much of the movie consists of meetings and of scenes in which Stewart dashes from appointment to appointment in her GMC SUV, multitasking her little fanny off (well, not little in this dramatization) and playing with panache the role she has chosen for herself. She's already divorced when the movie begins and she shows no particular interest in becoming romantically involved with anyone. She'll flirt, sure, but only to get her way. There's a pathos as well as a funny futility to her rigid determination.

In triumph, she always gloats, as when her company goes public and it's said that she makes a billion dollars in a single day. Not only that but an assistant utters three words that are unerring indicators, in America, anyway, that one has arrived: "Larry King called." Unfortunately, writer Charles Bohl fails to include such potentially yummy scenes as the one in which Stewart freaked out during an appearance on the CBS "Early Show," peppered with questions about her legal troubles as she chopped up a salad.

Gale Harold, very familiar to viewers of Showtime's now-concluded drama "Queer as Folk," cuts a dashing figure as Stewart's stockbroker, but poor Harold is hardly given any lines of dialogue. This suggests the film was heavily "lawyered" while in the script stage. Director Eric Bross keeps things moving, but to an extreme, trying to enliven the meetings and strategy sessions with busy, whizzing pans and other fancy trappings. We don't want editing technique; we want to see Stewart either in victory or in defeat, because she handles both so demonstratively.

She leaves prison near the film's end and gives a statement to the media that suggests she imagines herself one of the most beloved characters on the American scene. She grandly compares herself and her incarceration to Nelson Mandela, one of the 20th century's most significant political prisoners. By demanding an excess of respect, she seems at least to ward off disrespect.

In prison, she sits very properly at a table for lunch, meticulous in the way she unfolds the napkin and corrects the placement of the silverware. In one of the film's very best scenes, most of the other women watch her movements -- and then obediently imitate her. The film suggests that at least in her own mind, Stewart not only survived prison but triumphed over it, her fantasized version of dignity intact. However disappointing the film and however one may scoff at Stewart's delusions, you can't help thinking, "Good for you, Martha. Good for you."

'Extras'

If "Seinfeld" was the comedy about nothing, "Extras" is the comedy about nobodies. Ricky Gervais, the principal brains behind the ultra-sly satire "The Office," stars in the artful new series, which he wrote and directed with collaborator Stephen Merchant. It's got edge galore, but it's the kind that sneaks up on you and proves again that Gervais has the subtlest kind of brilliance, hard to categorize but easy to enjoy.

One's first reaction to the series (only six half-hour episodes long) might be to exclaim, "Oh no -- not another show about show business!" HBO has had so many, including the just-concluded "Entourage" and "Comeback" with Lisa Kudrow. But though it's set in the world of moviemaking, "Extras" (premiering Sunday night at 10:30 after the return of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm") isn't really about that. It's about peripheral people on the outer boundaries of life.

Gervais plays Andy Millman, one of the dozens of virtually faceless performers whose job in movies is to be seen but not noticed, an extra in the background who spends at least part of his time begging to be given a line to speak. It not only means more money, it also means some sort of inclusion in a process he otherwise can barely affect. He's not everyman but he might be everynerd, a mere peep of a person who nonetheless fights for his right to register on celluloid.

He fights for that because, in the end, it proves his existence.

But the show is hardly dripping with portent. It consists of wickedly, painfully or wincingly funny observations about humans in the workplace and their perpetual fight against, among other things, boredom. Millman fights boredom by lying and making up nonsense about himself -- that he's Catholic in the first episode, that he has a seriously ill sister in the second -- and playing out his own improvised movie on the sidelines.

He's wonderful, but so, in the premiere, is guest star Kate Winslet, one of those beauties of the screen who always prompts one to wonder where she's been hiding herself lately. Anyway, in "Extras" she lampoons herself, or movie stars in general, with courageous candor. The predominant running gag depends on Winslet being dressed as a nun for the movie being made. During the innumerable lulls between takes, and still in her fake habit, she advises Millman's friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) on the proper etiquette for talking dirty on the phone.

The show is full of visual tricks and fake-outs, since you're not always sure if you're seeing the show-within-the-show or the show, whether the actors are acting or just "being." It looks as though every show will include a scene in which Millman tries to work his way around or out of one of the lies he has told, as when in the premiere he fields questions from a priest about his Catholic upbringing. As he sinks in deeper and deeper, he's funnier and funnier.

Gervais is tops at reaching rock bottom and making it pay.

In the second show, the guest is Ben Stiller, and his parody of himself, directing a movie in the most obnoxiously imperious way possible, is utterly merciless. You have to admire an actor willing to go that far out on a limb and to do the sawing himself. Clearly there is much more to "Extras" than meets the eye, but what meets the eye is satisfyingly hilarious all by itself, and it proves again that Gervais is an absolute master at whatever it is he's doing.

Nobody else comes close, but then, nobody else is trying.

Martha Behind Bars (two hours) Sunday at 9 on Channel 9. Extras (30 minutes) at 10:30 on HBO.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company