No Reservations doesn’t aim for anything flashy, which I consider a positive goal, but its unimaginative title and low-key approach to a kitchen romance make this a forgettable film. Still, it’s better than I expected. I thought it would be something along the lines of Love’s Kitchen, but classier. Instead, it is based on an acclaimed German film, Mostly Martha, and centers around Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the head chef at a chic New York restaurant. Her exacting nature allows her to excel at her job but that comes at the expense of personal relationships. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) forces her to attend therapy so that she can work on people skills, but she uses the time to expound on food and cooking.
The sudden death of her sister changes everything. Previously accepting if not exactly content with her solitary lifestyle, Kate now finds herself caring for her nine-year-old niece, Zoe (a captivating young Abigail Breslin). It’s not all fireworks at first, and the film provides a window for Kate and Zoe to reacquaint themselves and adjust to their new relationship. It’s also gives the audience a chance to see Kate peel back some of her steely exterior. Zeta-Jones is affecting in places, like when she retreats to a pantry before breaking down in front of her boss.
The movie never brings us close enough to her inner state though. Here is a woman who so tightly controls every aspect of her life that she hits back at anything she finds disagreeable. When a customer complains about the food, she insults him; when her neighbor tries to get closer, she rejects his overtures. Now it’s Zoe’s needs and Kate’s own grief that begin to dictate her life – and she isn’t quite sure how to handle these unknown quantities. There is an overall sense of frustration and confusion, like when Zoe refuses to eat and Kate doesn’t know why or what to do about it, but those feelings don’t manifest in many tangible ways. The film offers up a lot of glassy-eyed and forlorn gazes as an alternative.
The emotional distance is not just between her and the audience though but between her new sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), as well. The two are a handsome match and partake in some obligatory bickering when they first meet. Kate dislikes his easy-going manner and penchant for opera in the kitchen but softens when he begins to connect with Zoe. The relationship eventually progresses towards a predetermined conclusion, but there’s no rush to get there.
Surprisingly, this languid pace doesn’t slow down the movie and in fact gives it a sheen of realism. It does make the characters feel less important, however. Kate’s journey opens herself up to different roles and forces her to reassess those responsibilities and commitments. It’s gratifying to see a woman grapple with what is essentially a three-person love story, but it’s one that needs to be tightened to have any lasting resonance.
Prod: Kerry Heysen, Sergio Aguero
Dir: Scott Hicks
Writer: Carol Fuchs, Sandra Nettelbeck
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban, Brían F. O’Byrne
Time: 104 min
Country: United States