Cybill Shepherd won’t be getting any sugar-dusted fruit squares or plum-pistachio marzipan baskets from Martha Stewart. Like Leona Helmsley with an apron, Shepherd plays the perfectionist homemaker in NBC’s “Martha, Inc.” as an unflinching bitch, a selfish screamer who lives up grandly to the reputation she’s cultivated as driven and malicious. As for the actual movie, the tide turns from a cheapy bio to an oddly poignant portrait of a very strange woman’s meteoric rise and public tumble.
Even made up, Shepherd doesn’t look the slightest bit like Martha Stewart, but that’s hardly the point; once auds get past the casting hump, the narrative path taken is a watchable and almost sympathetic one. Boss-from-hell or not, nobody can argue with her success — and who’s to say that her ImClone problems weren’t played up in the media simply because it was the juicy failure du jour? (The scandal is only touched upon at the very end.)
Growing up as Martha Kostyra (Dorie Barton) in Nutley, N.J., her upbringing was weird. Because of a bookish mother and a verbally abusive father who always thrust gardening projects upon the family, she buried herself in wellness projects as she dissociated from her peers. After getting accepted into Barnard, she meets and marries Andy Stewart (Seann Gallagher), a comely and kind law student who comes from money but never was able to support them later on in the way Martha had imagined.
Slowly expanding her businesses, from a Connecticut catering gig to local PBS specials to a publishing empire, Martha lands at Kmart, where her brand takes off and where her personality takes a turn for the bizarre. After securing a mammoth contract with the retailer, she’s portrayed as evil incarnate when dealing with Time Warner, the company that produced her CBS series … and asked for $85 million when she wanted to buy out her contract.
Given the complexities of realizing a living person, especially one whose image has been ubiquitous for the past several years, Shepherd, to her credit, eventually makes the character her own. While stretching quite a bit whenever she tries to do any actual mocking — it’s uncomfortable when she yells at staff or executives — Shepherd’s better with the few emotional moments she’s given, mainly involving her husband’s departure and affair with one of her nubile assistants.
Supporting troupe isn’t particularly noteworthy — nor is it probably meant to be. Tim Matheson is fine as adult Andy, and Jude Ciccolella is effective enough as her callous dad who ultimately warmed up. But they’re really all there to act as sounding boards, not-so-subtly maneuvered to showcase Stewart’s peculiarity.
Christopher Byron’s book on which this is based takes a straight-arrow approach, but director Jason Ensler and scribe Suzette Couture didn’t quite make up their minds as to whether this should follow the author’s lead or stray into farce territory. It certainly has been done — NBC’s recent “Three’s Company” telepic, also directed by Ensler, was a great example of a fun whirl revolving around real people — but it’s almost like this gang wanted to go that route and then pulled back.
Tech credits are solid, though a huge continuity error pops up late: a billboard for Sci Fi Channel’s new series “Tremors” appears in Times Square as she walks the Gotham streets bragging about her wealth after Martha Stewart Living Ominemedia goes public — back in 1999.