No Reservations (2007) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG for some sensuality and language
Running time: 105 min.

Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Bob Balaban, Jenny Wade, Brian F. O'Byrne
Director: Scott Hicks
Screenplay: Carols Fuchs (based on the film,
Mostly Martha
Review published July 23, 2007

No Reservations is a Hollywood remake of the German film by Sandra Nettlebeck released in the US as Mostly Martha (aka Bella Martha).  Although featuring a higher budget and more recognizable actors, I would strongly urge all interested to watch Mostly Martha first.  I won't belabor the point that Hollywood frequently remakes good and great foreign films for the worse, especially since I don't think that No Reservations is necessarily bad, and will most likely please those who typically enjoy such fare.  However, the main message of both films is that life doesn't always work out the way you think it should, which comes across well in the very earnest and emotionally sincere German film, but in the Hollywood remake, this theme of life's unpredictability falls strictly in predictable patterns.

Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Legend of Zorro, Ocean's Twelve) plays one of New York's finest chefs, Kate Armstrong, who has dedicated her life to cooking the finest foods at the highest of quality possible.  She is so focused on her career that she has virtually no life of her own, and though opportunities do present themselves, she is adamant about taking the risk of upsetting the delicate balance of her life.  She wishes she could break out of it, as she consults a psychiatrist (Balaban, Lady in the Water) to try to open herself up and keep herself from upsetting the restaurant customers who complain about the food she spends so much time on.  Her spats with patrons have caused some friction between herself and the restaurant's owner, Paula (Clarkson, Good Night and Good Luck), who thinks that the customer is always right, even if they are obviously wrong about how food should really be prepared from a connoisseur standpoint.

Kate's life comes to a screeching halt when her sister dies tragically, and she ends up inheriting her precocious nine-year-old niece, Zoe (Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine).  Not ever having children of her own, or anyone to care about, Kate finds it difficult to adjust to her new housemate, and with her life so consumed by her career, she finds it impossible to have the time to give her the attention she needs.  Meanwhile, things are changing at work, as in Kate's absence, Paula has gone ahead and hired a new sous chef for the restaurant, an eccentric, free-spirited man named Nick Palmer (Eckhart, The Black Dahlia).  Nick has changed the meticulous, professional kitchen into one where everyone is having a noisy good time, and when Kate returns, she is appalled that everything she has built up has been, in her eyes, eroded by Nick's unprofessional antics.  With her home life and work situation in doubt, the ever-calculating Kate doesn't know how to deal.

Director Scott Hicks, who has achieved some success with films like Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars, never really sees the material as anything terribly special, resulting in a film that strikes the usual romantic dramedy notes that should please genre fans, but will fail to achieve much in crossover appeal.  The role of the psychiatrist that Kate talks to is supposed to make her seem a little less "bitchy", and not quite as content with her current life as we might otherwise think, but these scenes are superfluous.  Perhaps they are just a crutch for the screenplay by Carol Fuchs to give us insight into what's motivating Kate to do what she does, mostly because she and Hicks can't manage to find a way to relate that through conventional story methods, despite having a pretty good cast of actors. 

Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are generally appealing, though not exactly knockouts, and both are merely conglomerations of quick-read personality traits and quirky mannerisms rather than fully fleshed-out characters.  Breslin impresses with another decent performance in the kid actor apartment, although her character, more often than not, exhibits that mix of precociousness and ultra-wise qualities that moviemakers seem to love to imbue kid characters with in films meant to pull on heartstrings.  I could say that with a little more work in the screenplay and delivery that No Reservations could be a winning film, but it already has been -- Mostly Martha.  Why they took a fine film and glossed it over with bland feel-good moments is a mystery when that film was already a pretty good example of how to make a feel-good film on its own, and to do so without spelling out everything that's going on from the characters' mouths.

Although pleasant and watchable, it's also trite and somewhat vanilla.  If films were compared to cuisine, No Reservations would be chain restaurant variety, crafted on the notion that it will be tasty enough to please a broad array of palates without being too bold in any area to make it too strong for those who aren't accustomed to a strong particular ingredient.  Oddly, another culinary-themed release this year, Ratatouille, tells a much more compelling tale, and contains more humanity, despite not a single human actor on screen.  At least that film is genuinely sentimental about food, friendship and life in general, even if it's an assembly-line production. 

For all of its flaws, I'll still recommend No Reservations strictly for those who like amiable romance flicks, even if they are fairly predictable and largely forgettable.  It skips your brain entirely and aims straight for the heart, but the organ produces a reaction in most if the stomach.  Although there is a motif of the chef as an artist at the heart of Kate's story, it's really the theme of Paula, the restaurant owner, that No Reservations exhibits -- give the customers what they want.  Why give the consumers filet mignon when they clearly are the fish-stick eating crowd?  Contrary to the title, my marginal recommendation comes with quite a few reservations.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo