By MATT COKER
By AIMEE MURILLO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By JONATHAN KIEFER
By INKOO KANG
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
By CALUM MARSH
Sadly, No Reservations is not the big-screen adaptation of Anthony Bourdain's snack-gulping, risk-taking Travel Channel show; you'll find no monkey brains here, nor any attempts to party down in Beirut while Hezbollah and Israel blow each other to smithereens. This is just more of the same from the franchise factory—by-the-recipe comfort food cooked up in a Hollywood test kitchen, where a bunch of Warner Bros. suits devoured a 6-year-old German chocolate cake called Mostly Marthaand decided the American googolplex prefers its foreign confections without subtitles. But as far as light summertime meals go, this one's satisfying enough to tide you over till you can get your hands on something that sticks to the ribs.
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a top chef in New York City who lives alone in a cush-and-cozy apartment that feels nonetheless barren. Kate, who can't understand why men leave her when she refuses to further commit to two-year-long relationships, is content to live solo—it gives her more time on the job in a fancy brasserie's kitchen, which she rules with a cast-iron fist.
Of course, this perfectly unencumbered existence is thrown into chaos with the death of Kate's sister, who has willed to Kate her perfectly precocious 9-year-old niece Zoe, played by Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin. At first, naturally, theirs is an uneasy relationship—relative stranger living with relative stranger, neither of whom wants the other around. Then Kate decides to start taking Zoe to the restaurant—where, after only a few days off to mourn, she discovers in her sacred space a new chef who's prone to cranking up the classical music and cracking up the troops during operatic sing-alongs. He's Nick, played by Aaron Eckhart, whose tousled bangs hang so low you're amazed he can see what he's cooking.
The restaurant's owner (Patricia Clarkson) wants Nick to take Kate's gig. All he wants is to know how she makes her most special and secret dish. The guy's so sweet it's astounding heisn't shot in soft focus; Nick won't take Kate's gig, only everything else she's got—her heart and the kid, too, as Zoe takes a shine to Nick the moment he serves her pasta and red sauce instead of auntie's whole fish.
The cynic would like to write this off as empty grown-up hooey, Baby Boomwithout an ounce of bang. But you can't do it because the thing's so charming and frothy and delightful and sentimental and beautifully shot and well-acted and sincere that it takes a good, long while before you start craving real nourishment, and during this disheartening season of overheated air-conditioned diversions, that passes for an unparalleled feat of artistic achievement.
This is not at all intended as a backhanded compliment, but nothing much happens in No Reservations, which is to say there are no out-of-nowhere contrivances, no late-in-the-game plot twists, no will-they-or-won't-they tensions. You know how this meal will end before the appetizer's served. Director Scott Hicks (who, apparently tired of doling out heavy, mushy fare such as Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars, is now content to serve up amuses-bouche) and the screenwriters—including Mostly Martha's writer/director, Sandra Nettelbeck—have done away with some of the meatier moments from the original. Zoe's less of a troubled child than her German counterpart, more timid than livid; Breslin is more sunset than Sunshine as the kid who resents her aunt for not being her mom but gets over it during a game of Monopoly.
The filmmakers have merely turned these characters' lives into fairy-tale fodder—which is what always happens in romantic melodramedies set in New York, never mind those set in kitchens. (Is it any coincidence this opens the same summer as Ratatouille, which had but a single flaw—the romantic subplot?) In this particular story, the fantasy fogs up with the steam and smoke rising from boiling pots, sauté pans and two chefs thinking about getting their grill on.
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