About midway through “No Reservations”, Zoe (Abigail Breslin) turns to her aunt, Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and says…
“Aunt Kate, you don’t have to do that…”
“Try so hard.”
It occurred to me this is an apt analogy for the film itself. Director Scott Hicks (“Shine”, “Snow Falling on Cedars”) you don’t have to try so hard to make things cute, romantic and adorable. If you have a well-written script with all of the right elements, everything will come together. Don’t force it.
Kate (Zeta-Jones), the exacting chef at a well-regarded small restaurant in Manhattan, is very uptight and spends all of her time thinking about food, her restaurant and her career. Her sister and her niece (Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) are on their way for a visit when they get in a car accident. Suddenly, Kate is her niece’s guardian and has to deal with a new young girl in her life. Kate’s boss (Patricia Clarkson) asks her to take some time off, but she stops by the restaurant to find Nick (Aaron Eckhart), her new sous chef stirring things up in the kitchen; he plays opera, he jokes with the staff, he’s a good guy. But Kate suspects he is trying to steal her restaurant. When she returns to work, she begrudgingly puts up with him because he claims he wants to work with, but that doesn’t mean she will like it.
“No Reservations” is based on a German film called “Mostly Martha”. It has been sometime since I have seen the original, but I remember enjoying the film. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was an enjoyable experience. “No Reservations” seems to be a fairly straightforward remake. Both films tell virtually the same story, with some character names and the location changed. But “No Reservations” seems excessively “Hollywood”, as though they have drained all subtlety out of the story and tried to make it more ‘understandable’ for the broad audience it will receive in this country.
“No Reservations” is not a bad film. Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are both good, and I felt they were able to build some actual chemistry. Breslin is also good as the young lady who finds herself without a mother and has to deal with this. But it is an extremely predictable film.
On “Ebert and Roeper”, Roeper and his guest reviewer gave “Reservations” thumbs up, noting it was a nice film for the summer and seemed to praise the fact they could predict everything that would happen before it happened. Unfortunately, they hit the mark right on the head. This is part of the reason I feel Hicks is trying to hard to get a reaction from his actors and from us. And also why the film is simply mediocre. If you can catch it on cable, you won’t turn it off. But take the time to go to a theater or rent it? No way. Not worth it.
After Kate returns to the restaurant, she is reluctant to work with Nick, but her boss insists. Kate’s sous chef is about to leave to give birth and she needs some help. At one point, they have a blow up and Nick won’t stay unless Kate says she needs him. This scene has been done, and done, and overdone in millions of romantic comedies. Of course, the fact she says she ‘needs him’ is a metaphor for the impending romantic complications. What do you think she does?
When she becomes resigned to having Nick around, Kate tears the menu in half and gives Nick a portion of it. But he objects, “Your portion is larger than mine”. She half-heartedly brandishes a knife and he sheepishly slinks away.
Throughout the story, Kate makes periodic visits to a shrink (Bob Balaban), a practice enforced by her boss because Kate is so highly strung; she confronts customers when they make a complaint. Unfortunately, you realize really early on the shrink will start using cooking terminology to help Kate with the problems in her life. So when he started to talk about how Kate knew “the best recipes in life are the ones she creates” the film completely lost me. This was the last straw. For your next film, Mr. Hicks, don’t try so hard.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is a good actress, but she has had mixed success in her film career. In “No Reservations” she seems very consistent in her creation of the super controlling, but also super uptight chef. Everything in her life is about her job and her food. When a neighbor, Sean (Bryan F. O’Byrne) asks her out, she makes up a rule about not dating neighbors; she doesn’t have the time or the energy to devote to a relationship. Everything is about her food and her career. Then, when Zoe enters her life, Kate realizes she has to take care of her niece and tries to make her feel comfortable, but she doesn’t become June Cleaver overnight. It takes some time for her to open up to her niece and for her niece to feel comfortable around her. This is realistic and makes her performance good. After they move in together, Kate naturally tries to get Zoe to eat, but Kate’s idea of food and Zoe’s idea of food are two different things. The first thing she serves her niece is a whole roasted fish, complete with eyes, and some sautéed squash.
Later, after Nick (Eckhart) starts working, Kate has no choice but to bring her niece to the restaurant with her. Naturally, Zoe is drawn to Nick and he realizes she is not eating, so he fixes a big bowl of pasta and gets her to eat. When Kate realizes this, she looks at him and mouths “Thank you”. He nods back. This is the beginning of their relationship and it is a little too precious to be realistic.
Nick’s purpose in the story is to charm the socks off of Kate, something that has apparently happened very rarely. Eckhart does a good job of making this character interesting. He is the complete opposite of Kate; he likes to play music in the kitchen, get the staff motivated, let them have fun. He is serious about food, but when Kate intones, “That restaurant is all I have. It’s what I am.” We know Nick doesn’t feel that way. He replies, “It’s only a small part of you”.
Naturally, because Nick is such a lovable guy, he is also going to charm Zoe’s socks off as well. Zoe arranges for Nick to come over and cook on their day off. Zoe has a plan and has only let Nick in on the details. Whole roasted fish again? Not on your life. But Zoe has more plans than simply food. This is a cute idea, but it crosses the line and becomes saccharin sweet.
Abigail Breslin does a good job of portraying Zoe’s grief. As a young girl, she doesn’t know how to deal with the feelings of loss she experiences after her mother dies. She is afraid, lonely and unsure about what will happen. After she moves in with her aunt, she tries to be brave (when Kate leaves her alone for a few hours to go to the restaurant) but ends up barricading herself in her room. As the story progresses, she gradually becomes more and more accepting of her aunt. As with Zeta-Jones, Breslin makes this believable because they never rush into each other’s arms for a big hug. There is too much going on for them to become so close, so quickly.
As I said “No Reservations” is not a bad film, it is just so predictable. If you have seen any romantic comedies in the past, you will probably be able to chart out the entire film about ten minutes in.