"No Reservations" is an American remake of the 2002 German film, "Mostly Martha," but it could just as well be a remake of any number of sudsy dramedies in which a child's parents meet an untimely death and he or she must go to live with a family friend or relative who is ill-equipped to raise them. Just ask Abigail Breslin (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
"), the talented 11-year-old Oscar nominee who stars as the sad-eyed moppet in question and who played virtually the same role in 2004's "Raising Helen
." In that picture, she and her two siblings were suddenly orphaned after an auto accident claimed their parents' lives, and subsequently they went to stay with workaholic aunt Kate Hudson. Here, she plays an only child whose beloved single mother is killed in an auto accident, and who subsequently goes to stay with workaholic aunt Catherine Zeta-Jones. One wonders if Breslin was experiencing heavy feelings of déją vu on the set.
In one of the few refreshing elements of "No Reservations," Catherine Zeta-Jones (2004's "Ocean's Twelve
") bites into a rare lead part that doesn't require she carry a gun or a sword around. Instead, she carries a knife as Kate Armstrong, one of New York City's master chefs who proudly runs the kitchen of upscale Italian restaurant 22 Bleecker. Headstrong at work but perpetually single out of fear of getting too close to anyone, Kate is suddenly thrown a curve ball when her sister passes away and she dutifully takes in her 9-year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin).
As Kate struggles to readjust her life and be there for Zoe, she must also contend with a new chef that boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson) has hired while she has been on grievance leave. His name is Nick (Aaron Eckhart), and it doesn't sit well with Kate that he has seemingly come in and invaded the workplace territory she calls her own. It turns out Nick isn't such a bad guy after allZoe adores himand before long Kate finds herself in the first romantic relationship she's had in four years.
"No Reservations" was directed by Scott Hicks (2001's "Hearts in Atlantis
"), a savvy filmmaker whose introspective nature and independent stylistic flourishes seem an odd fit for what is a mainstream studio romantic drama. He does what he can to set it apart from other like-minded pictures, incorporating a pulsating music score by Philip Glass (2006's "Notes on a Scandal
"), some choice soundtrack cuts, and a generous helping of overly important slow-motion shots. What Hicks cannot do is overcome a screenplay by first-time feature writer Carol Fuchs that insists on hitting every maudlin and generic touchstone of the genre. Thus, the viewer must wade through teary looks through photo albums, idealistic viewings of home movies shot on happier days at the beach, multiple whimsical montages, and even a playful pillow fight complete with gently falling feathers blanketing the hardwood floor. It's too cute by a half, too manipulative to be as touching as it wants to be, and rarely strays from utter predictability.
Despite all of this, "No Reservations" is halfway enjoyable on its own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lovely as Kate, an outward force to be reckoned whose assured persona masks an underlying vulnerability. Abigail Breslin transcends her role as young Zoe, and Aaron Eckhart (2006's "Thank You for Smoking
") is a likable romantic foil for Kate, even if his Nick is sorely underwritten. The film is best when the camera salivates over the food preparation and focuses on what it means to be a great chef. Indeed, one is strongly advised not to watch it on an empty stomach. All of this is good, and the movie might have been worth recommending had the film cut to end credits during a key sequence set to Liz Phair's "Count on My Love." Unfortunately, director Scott Hicks trudges forward with plotting that gets dumber by the minute. The final twenty minutes include a falling-out between Kate and Nick over a strained misunderstanding, a false crises in which Zoe goes missing, and more than one heartfelt reconciliation scene.
"No Reservations" lacks freshness, and tries to be too many things at once. Diverting enough while it lasts but afraid to take the chances required to make it more than just a slog through well-worn shaggy dog material, the film's downfall is in its stringent adherence to clichés. When an audience can witness the creaky machinations of the plot, it's a surefire signal that things need to be reigned back. Had director Hicks simply let the lives of his characters breathe for a moment instead of pushing last-second conflicts on them, the outcome might have resonated with more truth. In the case of "No Reservations," less would have been more.