I have no hard feelings toward adult-oriented escapist cinema, but there's a robotic quality to "No Reservations" that keeps the film from soaring. It's not overt sentimentality either, just this odd way the film conducts business bloodlessly, hitting latter plot points like an assembly-line worker.
Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a feisty, control-freak executive chef who's recently inherited her mousy niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) after her sister dies in a car accident. While Kate is away taking care of Zoe, her restaurant hires Nick (Aaron Eckhart) as her new sous chef, and he wins over the crowds with his relaxed approach to cooking. Kate bristles at the competition, but the chemistry between them is combustible, leading Kate down an anxious path where she's forced to open up her heart and embrace other people for a change.
"No Reservations" is actually a remake of a wonderful 2001 German film entitled "Mostly Martha." The two movies share the same plot and character arcs, but when it comes to moments of raw emotion and a comfort with silence, "Reservations" lacks fluidity and a sense of adventure. It's isn't quite a complete Hollwoodization, but a halfway-realized job, leaving some great potential out to rust.
It's a surprising result since "Reservations" was directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars"), a filmmaker who has shown nothing but patience before. Hicks nails the early going, working Kate's obsessive need to be perfect in appealing ways, and keeping the union of makeshift mother and daughter alive with dramatic promise and unease. Hicks appears interested in retaining the itchy sweater quality of "Martha," nursing the theme of Kate and her inability to accept defeat, even from those who love her, to promising results.
Somehow, all that directorial goodwill, and a tender performance from Zeta-Jones, gets sandwiched between two slices of toasted hokum once Eckhart's Nick enters the picture. Hoping to play freewheeling, hipster chef sorcery (in PJ pants and Crocs), Eckhart tries too hard (not a first for this actor), and his chemistry with Zeta-Jones is undercooked to say the least. At this point, Hicks loses all his marbles and shoves "Reservations" into romantic la-la-land, padded with dreadful "we be happy" montages presenting the new family at peace. All that's missing is a dreadful Liz Phair tune, circa her sell-out years, to back up this newly full house.
Oh wait, that tuneless mush is here as well.
"No Reservations" does have the allure of the kitchen in its favor, and anyone who slavishly follows the Food Network will get a thrill out of the restaurant scenes and the meticulous food prep shots. I've never wanted to curl up with a bowl of spaghetti harder in my life than right after seeing this film. It's a shame the rest of the picture stumbles to mechanical moments of unimaginative screenwriting and directorial apathy trying to keep the film simmering.
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