Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the head chef at upscale NYC restaurant 22 Bleecker, where she's known for her type-A temperament and her killer saffron sauce. For a woman whose professional work is marked by such flair and spice, her personal life is pretty dull. She dresses in all black, rises at 4:30 each morning to buy fresh fish at the docks, and returns to her empty apartment each evening, where her answering machine offers the daily announcement that she had no new messages. Kate's work is her life, and both are governed by a strict set of rules—no music in the kitchen, no dating men in her building, etc.
This carefully constructed order is interrupted when Kate's sister is killed in a car crash, leaving her nine-year-old daughter, Zoe (Abigail Breslin), to come live with Aunt Kate. The two females have no idea what to do with each other. They make tentative attempts to relate: Zoe moves her menagerie of stuffed animals into Kate's spare bedroom, and Kate offers delicacies of fish and duck to her bewildered new charge. Both women are grieving and lost.
When Kate returns to work, she finds Nick Palmer (Aaron Eckhart) minding her kitchen in her absence. He's all toothy smiles and goofy charm to her pinched precision, and he threatens her sense of order and control. While Nick and Kate are like oil and water, Nick and Zoe are like chocolate and peanut butter. They become fast friends as he proves to be the glue to help mend this broken little girl and to help bring these two strong-willed women closer together.
If you've seen any romantic comedies, you can probably already see what unfolds in the rest of the movie—the budding relationships, the requisite complications, the happy resolutions. Though predictable, the food theme does lend a fresh touch to the plot, as do a few lovely scenes that almost have a portrait quality to them. And it's refreshing to watch a romantic comedy that doesn't beat you over the head with its crassness, over-the-top humor, or overly airbrushed and beautified leads.
That's not to say that Catherine Zeta-Jones isn't as lovely as ever. It's just that it's nice—and realistic—to see a leading lady in jeans and a sweater. She's rather cold and unemotional throughout the film, though she's supposed to be. I'm reminded of how forgiving we are of actors/characters who are pretty and familiar; if we didn't know this was Zeta-Jones, the lovely cover girl for May-December romances, we wouldn't like uptight Kate at all. She is given a bit more range by movie's end, though it would have been nice to have more transitions to her loosening up.
Eckhart is likable as Nick, though he doesn't wear scruffy as well as you might expect. His ready smile feels authentic; his toting a Tupperware container of tiramisu to Kate's place does not. While we need Nick's goofy charm to lighten up some of the heavier plot lines, it's unfortunate he's written so over the top. Nick doesn't just sing arias in the restaurant kitchen, he does so in wildly patterned pants and orange crocs while conducting his imaginary string section with a spatula and a raw chicken breast. (Note to Hollywood: One quirk = charmingly eccentric; seven quirks = caricature.)