No Reservations (United States, 2007)
No Reservations is an adequate adaptation of Sandra Nettelbeck's 2001 German feature, Mostly Martha. While not as emotionally resonant as its inspiration and tending a little more toward melodrama, No Reservations is nevertheless a uplifting tale about love melting the heart of a cold, lonely woman. It's not exactly revolutionary territory but it is effectively presented and it will be hard to find viewers who aren't at least a little moved by what director Scott Hicks (Shine) has placed on the screen.
This is a "food movie," which means there are numerous shots of carefully prepared meals. The film doesn't come close to the likes of Babette's Feast or Big Night when it comes to a sensory overload but the images are there. Nevertheless, while food was a powerful symbol in Mostly Martha, it fulfills a less compelling purpose here. It's an integral part of the story, to be sure, but director Hicks has made this more about the people than their culinary creations, even if they talk as often through their cooking as through words.
Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the chef at a top Manhattan restaurant; her recipes, which tend toward the exotic, always receive rave reviews and, although she's a prickly woman, the owner of the place, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), tolerates her because she's one of the best in the city at creating French cuisine. Kate's world is turned upside down when her sister dies in a car crash, leaving Kate as the guardian of grade-schooler Zoe (Abigail Breslin). They mix like oil and water. Zoe is depressed at having lost her mother; Kate has no idea how to relate to a child. To make matters worse, Paula has hired the overqualified Nick (Aaron Eckhart) as a sous-chef. He claims to have taken the position because he wants the opportunity to work with Kate. She believes he's angling for her job. While knives nearly fly in the kitchen, sparks fly out of it.
The film's central relationships - between Kate and Zoe and Kate and Nick - are built upon strong foundations. We like and understand all three of these people. Nick is a free-spirit who brings joy and healing into the lives of two damaged individuals. Zoe is obviously deeply hurt by the loss of her mother and all in her life that is familiar. Kate, on the other hand, is emotionally shut-off. Her last relationship was years ago and she has become so focused on work that there is nothing else for her in life. Catherine Zeta-Jones does an excellent job of bringing out the sadness in a character who could easily have come across as a bitch. Abigail Breslin strikes an occasional wrong note but is generally believable. And Aaron Eckhart starts out strong and cocky then gradually mellows.
One of the film's small pleasures is a holdover from Mostly Martha - Kate's lighthearted therapy sessions with her psychologist (played by Bob Balaban). Most of the time, their hours together are spent discussing recipes or critiquing new dishes. It's amusing to observe the therapist questioning Kate about her romantic life while he samples her latest sauce and nearly moans in pleasure at its exquisite taste and texture.
There's evidence of an unrealized subplot that may have either ended up on the cutting room floor or that was pared down in the script. Kate's downstairs neighbor, Sean (Brian F. O'Byrne), carries a torch for her and it seems as if the movie wants to take this somewhere. Ultimately, however, Sean's only real role is to babysit Zoe one night and to be on hand when a slightly drunk Kate arrives home with Nick. It's a minor nitpick, but there's a sense that Sean has a little more potential.
The difficulty with No Reservations, as with any PG-rated adult-oriented drama (this movie would, in all likelihood, bore kids to death), is finding an audience. The film is charming and affecting but it's difficult to get summer audiences excited about a small character-based story centered around a lonely chef and a child who has lost her mother. No Reservations may not be a modern day classic but, despite the relatively small budget, it has more heart than nearly anything currently playing in multiplexes. It's perfect counterprogramming for anyone who wants more than pyrotechnics, testosterone, and special effects from two hours in a darkened auditorium.
No Reservations (United States, 2007)
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O'Byrne
Screenplay: Carol Fuchs, based on the screenplay for Mostly Martha by Sandra Nettelbeck
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Philip Glass
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers