Mostly Martha was a good film. No Reservations, the American version of the film, is not. You know you’re in trouble when the most notable thing about the film is how great Catherine Zeta-Jones looks in jeans after birthing two children. The film admirably goes for the European soft touch but fails, as most American films do. We do a lot of things well. Having a light touch is apparently not one of them.
No Reservations, like the brilliant Ratatouille, is about the world of chefs and their kitchens. In this film, Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a perfectionist chef famous for her signature dishes and use of truffles. She labors over her work to the exclusion of all else in her life. But, as John Lennon once wrote so brilliantly, “Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Into the chef’s world comes her suddenly motherless niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). We know the story we’re about to see before they show it to us, and thus much of the set up is just going through the motions.
Anal-retentive woman who can’t care for kids suddenly inherits one. Check. Scene where kid freaks out and rejects woman’s overbearing attempts to make her world a happy place. Check. Happy montage where they bond over pillow fights? Check. Big emotional crying scene where they forever cement their relationship? Check. And last but not least, man comes in to save the day. Not only is he a better cook and babysitter, but he’s miraculously a better parent. Check!
The man comes in the form of the talented and charismatic Aaron Eckhart, who plays Nick, a man who likes to live life with a capital “L.” For a much better film with the same basic dynamic, check out The Goodbye Girl. There is something disturbing about the way they set up Kate as a great chef, then see to her ultimate undoing by making Nick better at just about everything. What is Kate without Nick? She can’t work, she can’t mother her niece, she can’t love. There is only one direction the character can take.
It isn’t that Kate ought to be begrudged love and happiness. If she is too cut off to feel life and therefore will never be a really great cook, it is perhaps to her benefit that she hook up with a more adept educator/lover. Somehow, though, on screen it lacks the kind of urgency romantic comedies need. Perhaps the problem is that Kate has to learn to be a mother and learn to be a good girlfriend all at once. Didn’t we cover all of this territory with Baby Boom?
There isn’t a moment in No Reservations that rings true. Breslin does her best with what she has to work with, and you end up wishing the whole film were about her. But alas, the film is about Kate, one of the least interesting characters ever to anchor a film. Perhaps the problem lies with Zeta-Jones, who doesn’t appear to have the depth of character to pull off the character. The key with the character isn’t what she shows but what she doesn’t show that counts.
All is not lost, however. This isn’t a film that is going for anything spectacular, really. It’s a film for anyone who wants to see something sweet and romantic with food involved, especially in the age of the foodie. The Food Network is doing its part in the form of cross promotion. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t pay off. It almost does. But in the end you end up wishing you were watching Ratatouille instead.