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.)
The best performance is delivered by Abigail Breslin. Her grief doesn't feel manipulative. Her enchantment with Nick rings authentic. Her confusion with the two grown-ups in her life fumbling their way into and out of romance is believable. She's never too cute or too heart-tugging.
If only the overall film could have struck such a deft balancing act. Instead, we're bogged down by too many complications and side plots. No Reservations is a remake of the 2001 German flick Mostly Martha. This American version stays pretty true to the charming original, with more and more diversions toward the end. These diversions mainly take the form of additions: More quirks for Nick. More family issues for Kate. More complications in the budding romance.
Part of Mostly Martha's charm was the nuance and understatement; those great qualities are largely missing here. (Second note to Hollywood: We don't need an answering machine to announce "No new messages" to know that a character is lonely. You don't need to spell everything out for us.) With No Reservations, it's like someone took a perfectly wonderful crème brule and added seven more ingredients to it. As any chef worth his apron will tell you, less is often more.
That said, if you want a romantic drama/comedy that's mostly charming and doesn't insult your intelligence or morals, I suggest this light, heartwarming summer fare—with just a few reservations.Discussion starters
- In what ways do you see Kate mirrored in Zoe? How do those similarities affect their relationship?
- Are you more like by-the-book Kate or happy-go-lucky Nick? What are the pros and cons of each?
- How do we see Kate change over the course of the movie? What are the main events that precipitate her change? What causes her setbacks?
- The German version is less kid-centric and more marriage-minded. What do you make of these differences? How might these reflect something of our modern American values?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
No Reservations is rated PG for mild sensuality and language. The latter is mild and infrequent. The former occurs mainly in some makeout scenes between Kate and Nick. They keep their clothes on and stay mostly vertical, though Nick is still at Kate's place the next morning, making breakfast for the three of them. One of the waitresses at the restaurant is a little bawdy. And younger viewers might require careful explaining that nine-year-old Zoe's mom dies.
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