The good news for director Scott Hicks’ romantic drama No Reservations is that, as the current Ratatouille or the wine-obsessed Sideways prove, upscale food-themed offerings whipped up for the big screen can really cook at the box office. Even older films like Babette’s Feast, Chocolat and Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? previously goosed a lot of appetites.
And let’s not forget the popularity of The Food Network (where No Reservations is being aggressively promoted) and the many food-themed TV shows on the smaller screen that are all the rage. (Coincidentally, one is bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain’s similarly titled, globetrotting “No Reservations” series.) Also portending initial audience interest is the source material for No Reservations, German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck’s 2001 surprise art-house charmer, Mostly Martha.
Exploiting a surefire narrative formula, No Reservations pits two gifted chefs against each other. Master chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a cold, controlling neurotic in therapy. (Her shrink, played by Bob Balaban, seems to be luxuriating too much in his snazzy office digs and her delicious food to help his patient.) Nick (Aaron Eckhart) is a free spirit with a warm, generous personality and passion for Italian cooking who lands as sous chef in her posh 22 Bleecker restaurant kitchen, thanks to restaurateur Paula (Patricia Clarkson).
Hewing to the fine bones of the original film, Kate’s carefully calibrated routine gets a quick-fire jolt when niece Zoe (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin) comes to live with her after the tragic and sudden death of Zoe’s mother. Zoe, understandably, is at first moody, aloof, glum and rebellious.
After Kate brings her charge to the restaurant kitchen, where Nick has just been installed, outgoing Nick and the little girl bond after Nick prepares her his signature dish of simple spaghetti with basil. Nick is vocal about his passion for all things Italian (he apprenticed in Tuscany, etc.), but more discreetly goes about his seduction of Kate, whom he has worshipped as a chef. The two opposites attract, eventually iron out their differences, start an affair (surprisingly undercooked) and become surrogate parents for Zoe. There’s a setback when Paula promotes Nick, but all ends wonderfully.
But it’s not all good news from the No Reservations kitchen. Zeta-Jones’ Kate, with her “fear of frying” neuroticism, emerges a dark, icy creature audiences will need time to warm to. Other audiences, spoiled by Eckhart’s unforgettable performances in so many films (the recent Thank You for Smoking comes immediately to mind) may find him miscast. Charged with matching magnetic Italian star Sergio Castellitto’s turn as the fiery chef in Mostly Martha, Eckhart does all he can to put across his Italian-ness, as does the soundtrack’s abundant use of Italian pop and operatic selections.
But the effort is more akin to laying a thick, sugary sauce onto what demands a more organic, natural purity. Director Hicks (Oscar-nominated for Shine) needed to rev up this film several notches from simmer to par-boil, especially in the kitchen and bedroom. On the plus side, Breslin again “shines,” as do the production design and yummy food on view. But the haute cuisine dishes prepared by a very popular rat of the moment will whet more appetites than the menu offerings here.