If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the cinema! Kitchen movies are quite the fad right now, what with Waitress on release, and Pixar's Ratatouille at your local car boot(-leg) sale. A remake of the well-liked German film Mostly Martha, No Reservations is a polished, upscale Hollywood romance. The menu may be somewhat predictable, but the presentation is clean, the flavours are simple but sweet, and it has a nice, light texture.
Catherine Zeta Jones is Kate, chef at 22 Bleeker Street, a trendy Manhattan restaurant. She's queen of her kitchen, but aside from the two blocks between her apartment and the restaurant, there's nothing else in her life. At her boss's insistence she sees a therapist (Bob Balaban), but she controls him with her cooking just like everybody else.
Still, some things in life cannot be controlled. When Kate's sister dies in a car accident, there is no-one else to care for her nine-year-old niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). Kate's work hours are hardly conducive to good parenting but she's ready to give it her best. Meanwhile her boss hires a new sous chef to ease the load. Nick (Aaron Eckhart) is something else: relaxed and playful where Kate is disciplined and uptight.
Eckhart gets a great intro, wearing Crocs, belting out grand opera as he works. Zeta-Jones merely has to hoist a frosty eyebrow and you can set your watch by the hour of screen time it will take for her to melt into his arms. You can tell this is a 'women's picture' (Mostly Martha was written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck) by the fact that Nick's best assets are the comfortable friendship he strikes up with the child, and of course his cooking. It probably doesn't hurt that he's also good looking, modest and charming.
I recall interviewing director Scott Hicks about his film Snow Falling On Cedars. I told him how much I loved the cinematography and his face fell. 'That means you didn't like the movie, right?' It was an awkward moment. He was absolutely right. The film's stunning imagery couldn't cover for its turgid storytelling.
Well, I loved the photography in No Reservations too. But DP Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano; The Portrait of a Lady) doesn't gloss the material; he gets in close and relies on natural light; I doubt Zeta-Jones has ever been filmed this way before, but it's not like she needs pancake and filters to stop the traffic. These characters don't have the complexity of real people, but Dryburgh helps us to believe that they could be. With her pale complexion and anxious eyes, Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is so far from cute she gives the romance an altogether harsher grounding; Dryburgh might have taken her for his cue.
Apparently Zeta-Jones can't fry an egg in reality, and she doesn't have the scarred hands and forearms you find on most professional chefs, but Hicks and screenwriter Carole Fuchs get points for making food such an essential part of how people relate to each other in this milieu.
It would be foolish not to voice any reservations about No Reservations - and I'm willing to believe that Mostly Martha is a more raw and rewarding experience (I missed it). All the same, having gone in with low expectations I must say I was won over by its simple compassion and understated craftsmanship.
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