No Reservations

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "No Reservations." 

"No Reservations" is that rare thing -- an almost literal American remake of a foreign film, in this case writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck's "Mostly Martha." Which means that no one on this side of the Atlantic solved the problems of the original film, and therefore they carry over into this character-driven comedy about food, love and gourmet chefs. With Catherine Zeta-Jones top-billed and key art that suggests "Taming of the Shrew" in the kitchen, Warner Bros. Pictures should see solid middle-range business domestically. In Europe, the film could get mileage out of curiosity over what the Yanks did with the original German-Austrian-Swiss-Italian co-production.

Transferred from a trendy restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, to Manhattan's West Village, this American version hits a perfectionist female head chef, Kate (Zeta-Jones), with the same double whammy: The death of her sister in a car crash saddles the childless Kate, who shuns any and all personal relationships, with her 9-year-old niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). Meanwhile, the restaurant's owner, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), hires a new sous-chef, free-spirited and Italian-trained Nick (Aaron Eckhart), without telling Kate.

Predictably, the Kate-Zoe relationship hits many bumps before they become a family, while Nick and Kate battle one another until they fall in love. It's a pity, though, that we can see everything coming, especially when many of the dust-ups between each pair feel so damned contrived. The same held true with the European film, yet first-time writer Carol Fuchs and director Scott Hicks stick to the original with near slavish devotion.

So even small details remain: The chef still berates a customer who thinks her foie gras is faulty. She cools out in the freezer and regularly sees a shrink (Bob Balaban), a mundane device to suck more back story out of the character. One wise omission from the original is the niece's long-lost father, a character that can only get in the way.

Thus, "No Reservations," like its predecessor, has a very thin comic crust covering a very shallow dish. The chef is anal-retentive, the niece grumpy and the sous-chef aggressively jovial without any investigation into what inspires these characteristics. No one seems to have a life outside the kitchen.

Worse, the film feels miscast. Neither Zeta-Jones nor Eckhart look the least bit comfortable in a restaurant kitchen. More troubling, they look downright uncomfortable with each other. Sparks not only don't fly, their pairing is like kung pao sauce with pasta.

At one point, Zoe tells her aunt not to try so hard to be nice, but the problem is everyone is trying too hard. Zeta-Jones is a solid and beautiful presence, yet handcuffed by a basically colorless character. Eckhart is more a collection of characteristics than a flesh-and-blood character. Breslin is asked to pitch too many fits over nothing.

"No Reservations" also apes the original film in its blatant theft from that terrific restaurant comedy, "Big Night," by swamping the soundtrack in Italian "classics" ranging from pop songs to opera. There is scarcely any room for the most minimalist and atypical film score of Philip Glass' career, consisting of a few brief, upbeat bars that play over montages and scene transitions. Stuart Dryburgh's camera moves in the kitchen and restaurant are inventive without being distracting, while Barbara Ling's design is always eye-catching.

NO RESERVATIONS
Warner Bros. Pictures
Castle Rock Entertainment in association with Village Roadshow Pictures
Credits:
Director: Scott Hicks
Screenwriter: Carol Fuchs
Based on the screenplay "Mostly Martha" by: Sandra Nettelbeck
Producers: Kerry Heysen, Sergio Aguero
Executive producers: Susan Cartsonis, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Barbara Ling
Music: Philip Glass
Co-producer: Mari Joe Winkler-Ioffreda
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Pip Karmel
Cast:
Kate: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Nick: Aaron Eckhart
Zoe: Abigail Breslin
Paula: Patricia Clarkson
Leah: Jenny Wade
Therapist: Bob Balaban
Sean: Brian F. O'Byrne
Running time -- 103 minutes
MPAA rating: PG

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