Correction to This Article
The headline on previous versions of this article in print and on the Web incorrectly implied that the film on which it was based, "Mostly Martha," is French. It is a German-language film. This version has been corrected.

A Mere Morsel Best Served With Company: 'No Reservations'

Romance gets into the mix when a cranky chef (Catherine Zeta-Jones) finds herself working with an assistant (Aaron Eckhart) in a picture-perfect Manhattan restaurant.
Romance gets into the mix when a cranky chef (Catherine Zeta-Jones) finds herself working with an assistant (Aaron Eckhart) in a picture-perfect Manhattan restaurant. (By David Lee -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

Our special tonight includes an interpretation of Euro-indie film as big-budget dramedy, in a rich reduction sauce. (Lots of reduction. Lots of sauce.) "No Reservations" -- starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a coldly perfectionist chef and Aaron Eckhart as the slacktastic new sous-chef who melts her with his spicy goodness -- is a master class in semi-homemade cooking. You extract the leftover, not-half-bad foreign film (2002's "Mostly Martha") and run it through the mixer, put it over the flame and serve with two movie stars who could both use a hit right about now.

Bon app├ętit! Despite a nice ambiance at first, everything tastes a bit flat. "No Reservations" is not entirely objectionable nosh, and here's how it's best served: Crank that multiplex A/C and get a gal pal or two -- who can, all at once, admire Zeta-Jones's racehorse-shiny hair, go "mmmmmm" at the shots of scallops in mid-sear or creme brulee under the torch, and still believe in the fantasy of affordable IHMAs (Impossibly Huge Manhattan Apartments,) supplemented this time with SCNYRKs (Stunningly Clean New York Restaurant Kitchens). You need to see this movie with someone who can reflexively whine, "Awwuhhh" at all the sad parts. (There's an orphan child at the center of the plot, played by Abigail Breslin and her big eyes. So sad!)

"No Reservations," directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars") is yet another Hollywood offering based on a better foreign film, but it's not as if the original was unforgettably brilliant or amounted to much more than a pleasant, "Chocolat"-style subtitled afternoon at the dumpy art house. Adhering to an industry five-second rule, what's wrong with picking it up off the floor and trying to translate it to a $28 million budget? Who would really know if you didn't tell them? The health inspector?

The screenplay adheres for pages at a time to "Mostly Martha": Zeta-Jones, as Kate Armstrong, runs the kitchen at one of those picture-perfect Manhattan restaurants (the make-believe 22 Bleecker). The food is terrific, but the chef is too frosty. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) orders her to see a therapist (Bob Balaban) once a week, apparently to unwind. Kate usually winds up talking recipes during her sessions.

We are quickly made to understand that Kate needs love. "Life isn't always made to order," the movie poster warns (don't ya know), and that's the very depth of sentiment you're going to get here. Quickly enough, Kate's sister and niece are in a car wreck. The sister is killed. The daughter, Zoe (Breslin), has to come live with Kate. (There is no father in the picture, or grandparents.) The American version of this story has no problem underlining the sinister subtext: Kate, having spent too much time on her career, is simply incapable of relating to a child. (Take that, single working women.)

Thank goodness a handsome man comes along. Eckhart ( lub-dub, by the way, even if the shag haircut is trying too hard) performs serviceably as Nick, an assistant chef hired by the boss to fill in at a preoccupied, overworked kitchen. Kate comes back from the funeral, the moving of Zoe's stuffed animal collection, the school enrolling, the babysitter hiring, the failure at bonding, etc., to find Nick on her turf (and her surf), claiming only to want to assist, to learn from her culinary mastery.

And Kate's got the grief-stricken kid in tow -- who, ironically-but-not-really-ironically, won't eat. Kate tries four-star entrees. She tries, at her shrink's suggestion, fish sticks. Poor Zoe is just too sad. (The audience, meanwhile, has been shown enough food to be famished.) Magic Nick finds his way through to the kid via a big bowl of pasta.

Can love between Kate and Nick really be that far behind? Is there room for dessert? How many takes did Zeta-Jones need to pull a tablecloth out from under a set table? Why do people in movies have pillow fights that completely destroy the pillows? Who picks up all the feathers afterward? Are people in movies the only ones still using actual answering machines? ("You have ONE new message" -- gee, do you think it will further the plot a little, or is it just a Comcast salesperson again?)

Breslin has obviously mastered that style of innocence and line delivery that worked in her Oscar-nominated part in last year's "Little Miss Sunshine." Zeta-Jones is at her best when Kate bickers with picky customers -- I'd watch a whole movie about a touchy chef, her miserable employees and the grueling hours of a hopping Friday night, and just forget the romance and orphan.

But that raises another serious problem for "No Reservations": There's already a mouth-watering, crazy behind-the-scenes restaurant movie out this summer, and it's got a better story, and it's a cartoon, and it stars a rat.

No Reservations (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for a pinch of adult themes and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company