Foodie Flick

Running Time 105 minutes
Written By Carol Fuchs and Sandra Nettelbeck
Directed By Scott Hicks
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin

At the movies, there’s nothing much to write home about, but I enjoyed the embrace of No Reservations, an unnecessary but somewhat charming remake of Mostly Martha, the delicious 2001 German film about food, love and family values that enchanted a lot of skeptics, including me. The story has now been transported, complete with industrial stove and state-of-the-art menus, from Hamburg to Greenwich Village, but the basics remain the same. Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the serious chef of a trendy New York restaurant called 22 Bleecker Street, where she devotes her life to the kitchen: shopping for produce at dawn, creating signature dishes with subtle spices and time-consuming sauces, cracking a stern whip over her intimidated staff and leaving her own empty life to simmer on a back burner. But Kate’s focus and rigid routine change abruptly when her sister dies in a car accident, leaving Kate with the responsibility of raising a 9-year-old niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin, the pint-size Ugly Betty from Little Miss Sunshine). To further flatten the soufflé, Kate’s officious boss (Patricia Clarkson) hires a brash new sous-chef named Nick (Aaron Eckhart), who fills the restaurant with Italian opera, loosens up the staff and plays Bobby Flay to her Julia Child, challenging Kate’s perfectionism with annoying culinary shortcuts that undermine her authority and upend her formal rules for the preparation of haute cuisine. Independent and anal-retentive, Kate is not amused by Nick’s jokes and resistant to his sex appeal until she learns, through trial and error and gastronomic punishment, that there is something more to life than foie gras and black market truffles at $2,000 a pound.

Struggling at home to please an unhappy child and miserable at work sharing her space with a handsome but exasperating new cook, Kate learns how to share—the hard way. The movie drags, but survives on the sheer charisma of its cast and the mouth-watering appeal of its menu. Cooking together brings Kate and Nick together at home but drives a wedge between them at the restaurant. Leavened with Pavarotti arias from Turandot and a requisite falling-in-love montage from romantic 60’s fairy tales, No Reservations delivers an outcome as predictable as a Zantac 150 after a meal at 22 Bleecker Street. Storm clouds break with a conventional rainbow when Kate and Nick discover the Great Recipe For Life and open their own bistro with 9-year-old Zoe as their business partner.

Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine) knows where to position his camera, and the brilliant cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Painted Veil) knows exactly what to do with it. The movie looks wonderful, and in the food-movie tradition of Babette’s Feast, Big Night and Tortilla Soup, its drool quotient is high. (Butter, butter and more butter.) But the original Mostly Martha was as unpredictable as a made-from-scratch pie crust; No Reservations fails to resist pandering to feel-good clichés (food is a metaphor for healing but a poor substitute for love, the family that cooks together … etc., etc.). For so many homespun homilies to work, Kate must find vulnerability, humanity, selflessness and benevolence in an often inaccessible character, and the cover-girl face of Ms. Zeta-Jones lacks the expressive hint of inner warmth to make the transition believable. Mr. Eckhart is better known for (and better suited to) rugged-heel roles in Neil LaBute scripts. Still, there is something to be said for how much two pretty faces a la carte can augment an otherwise homely prix fixe plot.