© 2007 Ray Wong
I like movie titles that are double entendres, and No Reservations is a brilliant title. It tells us what we need to know about the film: it's about restaurants, and it's about letting loose and embracing life.
Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a celebrated chef, specializing in gourmet French cuisine, at the restaurant 22 Bleecker, owned by Paula (Patricia Clarkson). Kate's uptight, aloof, and tough. Despite insisting on running the kitchen by herself, she lacks people skills, and she's always at odds with her boss and the customers. Work is her whole life, and she's not letting anyone else into that life. She's also a total control freak. In other words, she's brilliant with her cooking, but failing with her personal life.
After her sister dies in an auto accident, Kate becomes the legal guardian of her niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). She has no idea how to live with anyone else, let along taking care of a child. During Kate's leave of absence to figure things out, Paula hires a new sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), without Kate's approval. Nick is the complete opposite of Kate: carefree, charismatic, touchy-feely...and he loves opera and specializes in Italian cuisine! Immediately Kate dislikes Nick and avoids him at all cost. Slowly, Kate warms up to Nick as she juggles between her career and taking care of Zoe, who is having a hard time dealing with her mother's death and adjusting to living with her emotionally detached aunt.
After a short hiatus, Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Legend of Zorro) returns to contemporary roles by playing an ice princess, a departure from her previous, more passionate roles. She looks radiant (has she ever played an ugly role?) and shows good emotional depth despite having to play someone who is emotionally stunted. She also looks the part as a chef by turning down her star wattage. Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart (The Wicker Man) is having a good time playing the good guy, all shaggy hair, stubble, and toothy grin. His character is tremendously warm and likable, offsetting Zeta-Jones's uptightness. Yet, because of that, his character is also rather one-note and superficial -- does this guy have any flaws?
Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) shows us that she can indeed act. She is good in expressing her character's despair, loneliness, confusion, vulnerability, and joy. That's quite a lot of emotions for such a young actress. Patricia Clarkson (All the King's Men) always has a commanding presence on screen. Her character is neither a hero or a villain -- just bossy -- and Clarkson makes her human and relatable. Jenny Wade (Rumor Has It) gets our attention as Kate's amiable, reasonable colleague, Leah. Together with Bob Balaban (For Your Consideration) as the therapist (albeit a small, almost-insignificant role), they're Kate's Jiminy Cricket.
Carol Fuchs and Sandra Nettelback's (Sergeant Pepper) script is filled to the brim with chick flick cliches: the difficult heroine, the charming knight-in-armor, the broody little girl, the supportive sidekicks, the tough boss, and death. Yet, the writers put a new coat of paint on this old house and deliver something that is rather satisfying. The dialogue is witty without being cheesy, and the drama unfolds with enough emotional weight. There is something mundane about the plot, however, and it never quite rises above the material to deliver the strong emotional punches we expect. Perhaps I'm jaded for having seen too many romantic comedies and chick flicks.
Director Scott Hicks (Hearts in Atlantis) does well in giving us a visually pleasant film. The locations, the lighting, the sets, and other details all work together. Hicks also lets his actors do their magic, and his camera never betrays his beautiful costars. Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are very sexy together.
There are some rough spots that drag, and subplots that can be cut without losing anything; and as good as Bob Balaban is, his scenes with Zeta-Jones feel extraneous and expository, what with there psycho-babble. On the other hand, Philip Glass gives us one of his warmest, most romantic and least intrusive scores -- even with his signature repetitiveness, I have to double check to make sure this is, in fact, a Glass score. The soundtrack is light and effective. And like in Ratatouille, one of the stars in the film is the food. Chances are you will want to go to a fine restaurant right out of the theater.
Even with its predictable plot and slow pacing, No Reservations is a pleasant and sweet film because of its likable stars, solid production, and beautiful soundtrack. It may not be as scrumptious as the finest foie gras, but it's delectable like a familiar shrimp scampi -- you may have tasted it before, but you can't help but enjoy tasting it again. No reservations required.
Stars: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban
Director: Scott Hicks
Writers: Carol Fuchs, Sandra Nettelback
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG for some sensuality and language
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.5 out of 10