Judge Erich Asperschlager loves restaurant movies. He just hopes he has better luck with this one than he did with You Got Served.
"Kate, life is unpredictable."
No Reservations feels more like comfort food than it does the kind of entree served at the film's expensive New York restaurant. The story—about a highly organized chef whose work-first lifestyle gets turned upside down—is formulaic, but solid performances from its main stars and a detailed peek into the restaurant world salvage what could have been a movie worth sending back.
Facts of the Case
Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Intolerable Cruelty) is the top chef at 22 Bleecker, a swanky New York restaurant. Having poured everything into practicing her craft, she has little time for relationships (and no patience at all for critical customers). But things change when her sister is killed in a car crash—leaving Kate the legal guardian of orphaned niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine).
If things weren't disruptive enough, while Kate is on leave from the restaurant, the owner hires a new sous chef: the charming, opera-loving, unpredictable Nicholas (Aaron Eckhart, Nurse Betty). Furious at having her kitchen invaded, Kate's coldness towards the Italian-trained chef is matched only by her staff's love for him.
When babysitting problems force Kate to bring Zoe along to the restaurant, her niece takes an instant liking to Nicholas—setting in motion a plan to bring the two chefs together.
It would be easy to dismiss No Reservations (a remake of the 2001 German film Mostly Martha) as just another "no woman is an island" relationship drama. It covers familiar territory and offers few surprises. Once we learn Kate's single-mother sister has died, for instance, there's really no question who her orphaned niece is going to live with. And there's not much suspense over how easily (or not) Kate will adjust to taking care of a child. And once the dashing, free-spirited chef Nick—polar opposite to the rigid Kate—enters the picture, no one need bite their nails to the quick over whether they'll fall in love. Aw, heck, why bother with spoiler alerts: They all live happily ever after.
Luckily, this means you pretty much know in advance whether or not this movie's for you. If the above paragraph made your skin crawl, move on to the next review. If, on the other hand, you enjoy (or at least tolerate) this kind of lighthearted drama—where there's not so much conflict as bumps in a road leading to a happy ending—stick around. The portions may be small, but the food's not half bad. Two things keep No Reservations from being completely inedible: the actors, and the food.
Though the script treads familiar ground, it gets a strong delivery from veteran actors Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin. Even Bob Balaban (Gosford Park) has a minor role as Kate's psychiatrist. Jones does a solid job of making Kate the perfect candidate to have her cold heart warmed by familial love. She and Eckhart have not only the chemistry to sell the romance, but enough chops in the kitchen to sell the restaurant scenes. (To prepare for their roles, the pair worked closely with real-life chef Michael White, learning how to chop, sauté, and plate like the pros.)
More impressive than Jones and Eckhart is 11-year-old Abigail Breslin as Kate's orphaned niece. Anyone who's seen Little Miss Sunshine knows Breslin is a rarity in the child acting world. Not only is she cute without being annoying, she can act. Her performance is a refreshing change from the sickeningly sweet doe-eyed scene chewing you usually see in films like this. Like her adult co-stars, she does the best she can with the material she's been given.
No Reservations is as much about food as it is relationships. Thanks to the popularity of the Food Network (my couch potato channel of choice) and cooking reality shows like Top Chef and Kitchen Nightmares, food media has become big business. And while No Reservations is only the latest in a long line of "foodie" films—including Babette's Feast, Big Night, and Ratatouille—it comes at just the right time to appeal to the Rachael Ray demographic. None of this is news to the filmmakers, as evidenced by the disc's lone extra: a "behind the scenes" episode of the Food Network series Unwrapped, hosted by Marc Summers (of Double Dare fame).
For those of us who care about making good food as well as eating it, No Reservations is full of interesting detail. The characters do a lot of cooking—at the restaurant, and at home—making everything from stuffed quail and lobster to pizza and pancakes. Throughout the film, food acts as metaphor for human interaction. Again, this is hardly the first film to equate mealtime with togetherness, or the act of cooking with familial love, but it gets away with the convention by being careful and authentic in its depiction of passionate food preparation. If only the story matched the care and creativity of the dishes its characters make.
The movie's biggest problem is its so-so screenplay. Everyone fits a clear character type: the self-sufficient woman, the single-but-great-with-kids guy, the precocious child. If it weren't for the focus on foodstuffs, No Reservations would blend in with every other movie about a guarded woman learning to open her heart to love and family. Besides the fatal car crash, nothing "bad" happens to anyone. I'm no sadist, but it's weird to see drama without conflict. Problems are not only easily solved, they all end up working towards some greater good, such as teaching characters lessons, or bringing them closer together. Even the loss of a mother (and a sister) feels less like a tragedy than the first step towards the inevitable feel-good finale. On the other hand, if you like safe, happy stories (and plenty of people do), you could do a heck of a lot worse.
In line with everything else in the film, No Reservations is shot in a pleasing, straightforward way—no fancy camerawork necessary. There are plenty of food close-ups and shots of things being grilled, flipped, sauced, and generally made to look delicious. The DVD menu lets you choose between the fullscreen and widescreen versions of the film. The soundtrack—also competent but not outstanding—consists of a Philip Glass score mixed with opera and the occasional Disney Channel-style pop song. Though the film is presented in 5.1 surround, you probably wouldn't know it (not that a movie like this calls for crazy sound effects). Still, credit should be given for the inclusion of French and Spanish dubbed audio tracks.
As mentioned above, the DVD has but one extra: the Unwrapped episode, which features interviews with the actors, director, and chefs responsible for the kitchen training and the recipes created for the film. It's a compact 20-something minute "making of" feature, and about what the film needs. I suspect offering two versions of the movie on one disc took up space that could have been used for additional extras—like the episode of Emeril Live the official Web site says is on the DVD but mercifully appears to have been cut at the last minute (Food Network star or not, that dude's annoying). Other bonus features might have been nice, but this isn't the kind of movie that begs for the deluxe treatment. If, however, you want more, and feel up to trying recipes from the film, they can be found in handy 3x5-inch card form on the official site.
Despite a focus on food, No Reservations wasn't for me. That's OK. My wife enjoyed it, and I imagine this is the kind of movie a lot of people will dig. Unlike most other movies in this light-drama category, there's almost enough acting and behind-the-scenes talent to make up for a lackluster script. The recipe may be a simple one, but if it suits your tastes, quality ingredients make this a dish worth trying. Hmmm…too subtle a metaphor?
The court is having a tough time reaching a verdict. Maybe another plate of quail with white truffle sauce, ravioli, and wild mushrooms would help?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Unwrapped: Host Marc Summers Visits the Set And Talks to the Film's Stars for an Episode of His Food Network Series"
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.