Judge Christopher Kulik had reservations seeing a movie where the male lead is using a spoon as a phallic symbol on the DVD cover.
Life isn't always made to order. (Yeah, it isn't predictable either.)
Recently, I reviewed Dedication, a movie with no laughs and throughly unlikable characters trying to pass itself off as part romantic comedy and part character study. It failed on both counts. While No Reservations is a better film—and yes, this is a rare instance where I'd choose from the studio assembly line over the indie flick—it's a romantic comedy where the romance feels manufactured and there are virtually no laughs. The film's heart is certainly in the right place, and it takes a risk by being nothing more than a sweet, PG-rated love story. Ultimately, the capable cast and crew just can't pull it off. If this film were a restaurant dish, I would send it back, ask for a dash of originality, and some injection of humor. I'm not sure if the screenwriter would attack me on that kind request by throwing it back in my face, but that obviously means she can't take rejection well (just like its lead character). Anyway, without further conflict, here comes No Reservations on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Video.
Facts of the Case
The angelic Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Mask of Zorro) is a dedicated chef who learned her craft from her mother and now works as the kitchen head in a NYC bistro. She lives by herself in an upscale apartment and has many restrictions in her life (i.e. she will not eat dessert, she will not eat in the afternoon, she will not date any guy in her building); in addition, she refuses to meet those who admire her cooking skills, but is more than willing to verbally retaliate when she gets negatively criticized. Her boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson, Good Night, and Good Luck) respects her position, but at the same time is worried of her rather hostile actions towards the customers. It's because of that hostility that she sees a nameless shrink (Bob Balaban, Dedication) on a regular basis. Soon, two major events happen which threaten turn her world upside down.
One of these changes involves tragedy, as her sister is killed in an automobile accident. Kate is now forced to adopt her niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine). Kate has no experience with raising children, and her hectic schedule will naturally become a burden. The other major change comes in the form of Nick (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich), a handsome chef, who Paula inexplicably hires while Kate is taking a week off. Kate sees Nick as nothing more than a rival and is convinced his goal is take over the kitchen and run it as his own.
With all due respect, if you cannot see what's going to happen, then this maybe the movie for you.
Don't you hate that kind of movie where you feel like you have watched it already just by looking at the poster? Imagine for a moment that you're cruising the new release wall at your local video shop and you stop to look at the DVD for No Reservations. You see the stars of the movie facing opposite each other, and yet they are smiling with their heads turned in each other's direction; you think to yourself, "well, this looks kinda cute!" Catherine-Zeta Jones, however, is turned at a 45-degree angle while Aaron Eckhart is stationary. This tells you that Kate's character is the one which will change, and it's because of Nick that she will turn her life around. She is also wearing a watch, which implies that time will be an issue for her at some point in the story. Now, if you want to analyze the cover even further from a suggestive perspective, Kate has her hand in a large bowl, while Eckhart is sticking a spoon into a small pot. Believe me, I'm not suggesting that those who work in film advertising have degrees in psychology, but they do know how to subliminally seduce the consumer to rent a film. I'm sure Marshall McLuhan will tell you the same thing.
Getting beyond the cover, let's get back to the film itself, which is based on a 2001 German film entitled Bella Martha, written and directed by Sandra Nettleback. Evidently, it won many European awards, and I would bet that the producers at Village Roadshow Pictures saw potential in the project. They hired Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine) and his team—including his excellent editor Pip Karmel (Me Myself I)—to helm the film. I haven't seen the original German film, though I'm willing to bet that first-time screenwriter Carol Fuchs made more than a few changes, which don't include dropping the German references. Fuchs certainly knows the formula, but she depends on it rather than whip up some surprises and enhance character development. We never really feel the passion between the cold Zeta-Jones and trying-to-be warm Eckhart which is a major liability in a romantic comedy like this. What is most annoying is Fuchs doesn't know how to write comedy. I laughed two or three times, while the rest of the film was shrouded in melodrama, mostly involving Zoe's difficulty adjusting to life with Kate.
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart are both fine performers who deserve a better script. I have enjoyed them both in previous films and wanted to see if their chemistry rang true here, though the passion just isn't there. Sure, they look good together and do their best, but their star power isn't enough to lift this film out of its tried-and-true, formulaic foundations. The one that outshines both of them is the irresistible Abigail Breslin, who is sorely underused, in terms of screen time and dialogue. When we first meet her in the hospital and she realizes her mother had been killed, her reaction actually made me choke up for a few seconds—yes, she is that good. I'm praying she doesn't go down the same route Dakota Fanning has been traveling in recent years. Once again, Bob Balaban is wasted, as is Patricia Clarkson whose nondescript supporting character could have used a jolt of electricity.
Recently, No Reservations came to Blu-ray and the results are not as delicious as I expected. Visually, the print is clean for the most part, though none of it is luminous, with the 2.40:1 widescreen in VC-1 encode doing its part. The film is better on the audio side, with Philip Glass' stirring score—one of the film's few virtues—and the songs on the soundtrack sounding fine in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, with other options for French and Spanish. Subtitles are provided in all three languages. Special features include two featurettes, both of which I found a waste of time because they provided no insight whatsoever into the making of the movie. There is an episode of Emeril Live—a cooking show that I've never heard of before—which feature Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin cooking the film's briefly-seen dishes with the show's host. It plays as nothing more than a glorified promotional piece. The other equally pointless bonus is an episode of The Food Network series Unwrapped, wherein host Marc Summers visits the set of the film during production and talks with the actors. While I credit the stars for their hard work in preparing to make dishes, it's sad when all Warner Bros. could do is cook up two episodes of food shows to include as special features. While the theatrical trailer is not included sepaseparatelyrately, you can see it while watching Emeril Live.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from Glass' score, there is appropriate use of classical pieces by Luciano Pavarotti, including the powerful "Nessun Dorma." The only song that feels out of place is Liz Phair's "Count on My Love" which came off her most recent album. I'm a huge Phair fan, and I respect anyone who chooses the underground indie artist over the pop mainstream. However, a great soundtrack does not a great movie make.
We need a romantic comedy that is much more nourishing than this one.
Warner Bros. and No Reservations [Blu-ray] are found guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Emeril Live episode
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