If you’re a foodie, then this has been your summer. First Waitress served up a delectable confection of sugary delight, then Ratatouille arrived with an explosion of gastronomic enchantment, and now No Reservations appears to whet your appetite yet again. Although No Reservations serves up a menu of Franco-American fusion cuisine, the film actually has more in common with the well-known joke about Chinese fare — it satisfies while you’re sitting down at the table, but the moment you get up, you’re hungry again.
No Reservations is based on (some would say blatantly rips off) the much-loved 2001 German film Mostly Martha, the story of a highly respected but temperamental chef whose well-ordered life is turned upside down in ways she cannot possibly anticipate. Catherine Zeta-Jones is Kate, a chef who runs her kitchen with military precision and lives her life like a recipe from one of her cookbooks — precise, ordered, without deviation or variation. A perfectionist of the highest order, she is known more for what she won’t allow herself to do than for what she will. Sure, her cooking is the talk of Manhattan, but Kate is anything but a people person — she doesn’t take criticism well, whether it comes from her boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson) or the occasional unsatisfied customer. It’s sad when the person who knows you the best and is closer to you than anyone else in the world is your shrink.
Kate’s perfectly delineated life is torn into tatters when her sister is killed in a car crash and her niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin) comes to live with her. Unable to take care of herself much less a child, Kate discovers that children are the ultimate disorder. Frozen in grief, Zoe sleeps hiding beneath her bed and turns her nose up at Kate’s cooking. Try as she might to make her feel welcome, everything Kate does seems to push Zoe further and further away.
During Kate’s absence, Paula hires Nick (Aaron Echhart), a freewheeling Italian sous-chef. Nick is everything Kate is not — flamboyant, friendly, unpredictable, light on his emotional feet and devilishly charming. Despite the fact that everyone else is in love with him, Kate sees the guileless upstart as making inroads on her job and does everything she can to drive him away. Ying to her yang, Nick is exactly what Kate needs, if she’s willing to bend her rules that keep her lonely and distanced from everyone around her. Slowly but surely, the French chef falls in love over Puccini and spaghetti. Nick’s presence in Kate’s life will serve not only to melt her well-ordered heart, but also bring shy Zoe out of her traumatized shell. The film’s resolution, while emotionally satisfying, arrives far too quickly and tidily.
Director Scott Hicks’ (the Oscar nominated Shine, and the intoxicating exquisite Snow Falling on Cedars) latest film is a fusion somewhere between a standard romantic comedy and something desperately, but unsuccessfully trying to be deeper. Brighter and far less nuanced than anything Hicks has ever done, No Reservations is full of the genre’s customary obstacles and resolutions. However, an otherwise standard storyline is rescued by some terrific performances by the leads and Hick’s more than capable, if uninspired, direction.
No Reservations is so confident in the chemistry of its leads that it doesn’t even mix them together until more than a half hour into the film. Zeta-Jones, who has been hiding from the camera of late, reminds everyone why we feel in love with her in the first place, Eckhart brings his usual high-spirited, roguish charm to the part of Nick, and Breslin, who continues to grow right before our eyes, shows us why she is one of the finest actors of her young generation.
No Reservations is like a love letter to Manhattan’s West Village and Greenwich, an area not unfamiliar with food and fine dining. If the sumptuous Danish film Babette’s Feast used food redemptivly, No Reservations uses it to seduce. Food is a metaphor for that which we feed ourselves physically and emotionally, and the film urges us to slow down, let life in, and truly taste what it has to offer. Even disorder can be delicious.
Neither bland nor delectable, the heartfelt No Reservations won’t disappoint your pocketbook or send you over the moon, but for two hours it will make you forget about the insipid summer blockbusters whose repetitive detonations you can hear through the theater walls next door. That has to stand for something.