The summer’s foodie mini-genre continues with “No Reservations,” in which the wizard in the kitchen is not a rat but Catherine Zeta-Jones as an uber-chef made to see there’s more to life than foie gras and black truffles. Agreeably prepared and attractively presented, this remake of the tasty 2001 German feature “Mostly Martha” bears too many earmarks of Hollywood packaging and emotional button-pushing, but doesn’t go far wrong by closely sticking to the original’s smart story construction. Warner Bros. should generate decent upscale-leaning biz by appealing to legions of food show fanatics and women ill-served by dominant hot-weather blockbusters.
Existing in that seductive version of New York most often associated with Woody Allen films and assorted romantic comedies — the Gotham in which everyone lives in elegant apartments and dines at fabulously chic restaurants — “No Reservations” is mostly set in one of those restaurants, 22 Bleecker, a fictive establishment at the very real corner of Bleecker and Charles in the West Village. Perennially packed eatery is fronted by savvy owner Paula (Patricia Clarkson), but the star here is Kate (Zeta-Jones), an obsessive kitchen diva who would no doubt happily reside at her workplace were it not prevented by city ordinance.
A perfectionist who cuts her hard-working staff no slack and thinks nothing of telling the occasional complaining customer where he can go, Kate is not a people person and would seem to need to get a life, from a conventional point of view. Well-rounded she isn’t, but there’s something so admirable about her demanding nature and professional self-realization that one partly doesn’t want to see her bend to normalcy and accommodate others, even though it’s obvious that’s where this story is headed. When she tells her therapist she has no idea why she’s seeing him, her utter befuddlement becomes a touchstone of her paradoxical charm.
Left to her own devices, she almost certainly wouldn’t change. But fate delivers a low blow when Kate’s sister is killed in a car accident, leaving her young daughter Zoe (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) nowhere to go but to Aunt Kate’s. (Perhaps the biggest change from the original is that the father’s identity this time isn’t even known.) The brittle, all-business grown-up has no clue how to relate to a 10-year-old, much less how to console her, and so at first carries on as usual after dropping her at a new school and hiring suspect babysitters.
Stress finally demands a break, and while Kate takes a little time off, Paula brings a new face into the kitchen, the goofy but good-looking Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a cut-up who overnight changes the kitchen’s ambiance from that of an army operations h.q. to backstage at the opera. Flamboyant, flirtatious and talented enough to get away with his pranks, Nick has made his rep in Italian cooking (character in the original film was an Italian chef working in Germany), and it’s only with grudging resentment that Kate permits him to stay upon her return.
Once the story dynamic is set up, virtually nothing of any consequence happens that doesn’t have its roots in food. Kate soon brings Zoe to work, where the girl begins learning some basics and, having turned up her nose at her aunt’s fussy dishes, warms to the simple pastas calculatingly thrown together by Nick. And when Zoe schemes to have Nick over to prepare a feast for the three of them, Nick knows the key to Kate’s heart lies in her stomach.
If, indeed, Kate is prepared to let any man into her life, it’s clear early on — and certainly to Zoe — that Nick’s the one, but some customary romantic comedy obstacles must be negotiated first. Hewing closely to the “Mostly Martha” script by writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck, first-time scenarist Carol Fuchs keeps the dicey dynamics credible among the central characters, although once Kate begins softening up, she drops some thudding dialogue bombs (“I wish there were a cookbook for life”).
Similarly, director Scott Hicks’ work cuts both ways, creating a warm cocoon that fosters engagement with the well-drawn characters while at the same time steering the material in softer-than-necessary directions and refraining from peeking any deeper into the main characters to suggest what makes them tick. Without question, “Ratatouille” deals more profoundly with the personality makeup and urges of a driven chef-as-artist than does this genial divertissement.
All the same, Zeta-Jones is in her element as a formidable woman one messes with, professionally and personally, only at one’s peril. Dominating the kitchen like a field commander, her Kate may have stringently repressed desires and emotional frustrations she refuses to confront but, then again, she may not, and imagining that the latter is the case constitutes her greatest appeal. And, yes, she looks pretty darn good in her tight-fitting work uniform.
The lanky, exuberant Eckhart might seem an odd match for his co-star’s cool, dark beauty, but this mostly works to the film’s benefit; thesp makes Nick’s quirkiness winning rather than grating as he stealthily charms Zoe while restraining himself with Kate. Breslin again shows she’s got the right stuff by playing a bereaved kid without asking for sympathy.
Lustrous production values make the world of the film a lovely place to visit, and if 22 Bleecker actually existed, it would be months before you could get a reservation.