“No Reservations,” a new romantic comedy that opens this Friday, July 27, is a minor accomplishment in a summer filled with many major disappointments. The film tells several stories but first and foremost is that of Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a temperamental but successful New York chef. How temperamental is she? So much so that her boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson) insists she get therapy or lose her job. Kate has nothing else but her job, even spending her off time reading cookbooks, so she has no choice but to see the therapist (Bob Balaban) where she prefers to cook for him instead of revealing much about herself.
Kate is also not much of a people person. While she enjoys the accolades of the restaurant customers who love her cooking, she immediately blows a gasket whenever there is a complaint about her cooking. Kate also does her best to avoid her downstairs neighbor Sean, a seemingly nice divorced man who is interested in dating her. Kate would rather pretend to have forgotten something in her apartment then talk to Sean, whom she knows will ask her out. Why won’t she date him? “I don’t date men who live in the same building as me” she tells him. Sean can see right through her but he’s a nice guy who imagines she may one day break down. Kate has a lot of rules for her life.
Kate’s life is suddenly turned upside down when her sister is killed in a car accident and Kate takes custody of her niece, Zoe, (Abigail Breslin). It’s an awkward fit at first as Zoe is trying to cope with her mother’s loss and Kate is trying to cope with new found motherhood. Kate is so unprepared for instant motherhood she doesn’t even know what to feed a little girl. The first meal she cooks for Zoe is fish, with its head intact. Its little wonder Zoe asks to leave the table.
Meanwhile at work Paula has brought in Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a hotshot up and coming chef whose dream is to share the kitchen with Kate. Not surprisingly Kate is none to happy about this new arrangement and does her best to show Nick how she feels. Nick likes to play opera music as he cooks and enjoys open banter with the other employees in the kitchen. It’s a welcome relief for them to have such a personable co-worker. For Kate, Nick is nothing but a distraction who is likely to distract the other employees as well. Upon her return the opera music goes arrivederci but, not surprisingly, sparks will soon fly.
At home Kate has to leave Zoe with babysitters due to her night hours but soon Zoe is joining her at work, as the best of the babysitters is a teenage girl who wears black lipstick and a nose ring and reads books about viruses. While at work Nick and Zoe become friendly after he feeds her a bowl pf spaghetti and she gulps it down almost instantly. Kate is impressed and thankful but soon Zoe’s school principal is telling Kate that Zoe is sleeping in class and explaining it away with her late night work hours. The principal recommends Kate changing things or risking losing Zoe to foster care.
“No Reservations” is a simple, straightforward romantic comedy that turns out to be very sweet and sometimes very moving. If you have seen the previews there isn’t a whole lot more to the film. The film is directed by Scott Hicks, who earned an Oscar nomination a decade ago for “Shine” and has yet to match that success (Snow Falling On Cedars; Hearts in Atlantis). This is Hicks’ first film in six years and it’s an interesting choice. Perhaps he wanted to change tones after three dark films but he certainly could have challenged himself with something a little deeper. With the material at hand most directors could have made this in their sleep. There are no big twists or turns but the cast is just appealing enough to pull it off.
Zeta-Jones plays Kate as a tough woman who believes in her cooking and won’t let anyone push her around. She is beautiful to look at but keeps her body covered from head to toe because Kate is not a fashion model but a hard working New Yorker. It’s a refreshing change. Eckhart plays Nick as a guy who loves to cook and while he may be awed working with Kate, who seems to be renowned for her talents, he never let’s things get too serious in the kitchen and knows which buttons of Kate’s to push to make her smile without making her mad. In a nice twist to his character, Nick is not the one to push things towards a sexual relationship. After their first kiss he gets up, grabs his things and leaves. After a long night out in which Nick brings the somewhat tipsy Kate home, he kisses her and leaves. This Nick is a nice guy.
As for Abigail Breslin I must confess that I have the biggest non-sexual crush on this young actress that a person can have. When she smiles she lights up the screen and when she cries it is painfully real and never fails to move me. Twice during this film my eyes welled up with tears. Breslin first came to my attention as Mel Gibson’s adorable daughter in “Signs” and may be best known for her Oscar nominated performance in last year’s sleeper hit “Little Miss Sunshine.” Here she plays a little girl mourning the death of her mother (much like she did in the similarly themed Raising Helen), trying to fit in with an aunt she doesn’t know and still live a normal life. It’s a tough adjustment and Breslin shows just how tough it is. One of the best moments in the film is a small one when she asks Kate if her mother is dead, knowing full well the answer to the question. Breslin is wonderful here.
The film is not without its problems. We never get a true sense of why Kate is so angry or why she is such a great cook except for a few brief expositional hints. We also never see Kate truly working. We see her topping off entrée and dessert dishes but I would have liked to see her create a meal for which she was so famous. In other words I would have liked for the kitchen scenes to be even more realistic. And while the cast pulls it off, the script is lightweight and we see where the film is going long before the characters do. We can anticipate things ahead of them and that is usually fatal to a film but this film is just charming enough. I was won over in spite of everything.
“No Reservations” is a light, pleasant film that isn’t deep but entertains at the time. It’s much like a BLT sandwich that Kate could whip up in a minute. It’s delicious and enjoyable at the time but once you digest it you forget about it and move on.