July 26, 2007

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No Reservations (PG)
Romantic comedy jumps on the foodie bandwagon in No Reservations, a remake of the well-regarded German chef-in-love and chef-learning-to-be-a-mom movie Mostly Martha.

And the best compliment I can pay to No Reservations is that it hasn’t killed my interest in one day seeing that movie.

Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a good if rather rigid and rage-prone chef at a New York City restaurant. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) has even asked her to see a therapist (Bob Balaban) in part because of her tendency to flip out on customers who question the doneness of meat. Into her mise en place world comes young Zoe (Abigail Breslin), her niece who is suddenly orphaned when her mom, Kate’s sister, is killed in a car accident.

Kate takes a couple of days off work to help Zoe get settled in her apartment and start school. When she returns to the restaurant, the boisterous Nick (Aaron Eckhart) has been hired as sous chef (Kate’s current sous chef is mere days from giving birth). He’s introduces opera and joking around to the kitchen — two things Kate’s not so keen on. Thus begins their antagonistic relationship which, as a zillion rom-coms have taught us, can only lead to love, love complicated not only by their kitchen competition but by Kate’s slow acceptance of her new role as a single mom.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is 37, not old in terms of the real world but, for Hollywood, surprisingly grown up. But the movie — a movie which is clearly attempting to appeal to women — is a little bit infantilizing of Zeta-Jones, a quite regal and self-possessed actress. She’s too prissy to have fun but too passionate to hold her temper. She’s the chef but is supposed to let Nick be all Nick-like in her kitchen, of which, as chef, she’s the captain, and is seen as controlling when she acts like a boss. The movie, in fact, treats just about every example of her using or protecting her authority as an act of icy irrationality which, just as soon as she opens her heart to the healing power of dating a cute boy and having pillow fights with Zoe, she’ll understand was wrong. A kitchen’s a busy place and having somebody in charge — and acting in charge — is key to its running well. The movie has a slight but nonetheless strange disdain for Kate’s professional skill and ambition. Kate has to learn an assortment of little lessons about life whereas Nick is just perfect the way he is (the movie briefly mentions and then brushes away the tiniest of hints that he might have some kind of fear of being the guy in charge).

The movie’s treatment of women in charge, however, isn’t nearly as annoying as its treatment of the foodie world. As with the movie’s weird attitude toward Kate and her ambitions, its stance on food is hard to describe, exactly, but No Reservations uses food (and eye-roll-worthy food-related plays on words, such as the one in the film’s title) as a prop more than as an organic-seeming part of the story. The animated movie Ratatouille was about a lot of things besides food — believing in yourself, chasing your dreams, not judging people by their appearance — but the food was so beautifully tied up in the story that the movie could make you hungry even when it was a rat making dinner. No Reservations featured several shots of Kate’s lovely apartment that filled me with longing (and a scene of Kate and Nick relaxing with a glass of wine did, in fact, remind me how much this movie made me want a stiff drink) but the movie’s kitchen scenes didn’t so much make me hungry. They felt stagey and like irrelevant interludes in the drama, as though some marketing exec had spliced them in because a survey of women 18 to 45 showed that 70 percent of them wanted more close-ups of tiramisu in their movies.

Obligatory movie-to-food comparison: Like frozen pizza or dinner at a chain restaurant, No Reservations looks a lot tastier in the ads than it does when you finally sit down to enjoy it. C

Rated PG for some sensuality and language. Directed by Scott Hicks and written by Carol Fuchs and Sandra Nettelbeck (Nettelbeck wrote and directed the 2002 German movie Bella Martha, called Mostly Martha in its U.S. release, the movie on which No Reservations is based), No Reservations is an hour and 43 minutes long and will open on Friday, July 27, in wide release. The movie will be distributed by Warner Bros