The makers may have “no reservations,” but I certainly do. I’d be prevaricating with wild abandon if I made the claim that this Hollywood version of the German film Mostly Martha (2001) was a travesty of the original. It may well be, but I’m not making that claim because, in all honesty, I don’t remember Mostly Martha all that well. I saw it. I liked it. I reviewed it. I remember the basic plot—intact here—but that’s about it. That said, I find most things about its remake evaporating from my mind less than 24 hours after seeing it.
I’m less convinced that Mostly Martha is better than No Reservations from any intrinsic superiority than simply from the fact that the story feels fresher with a cast you don’t know than it does with familiar Hollywood faces. I don’t recall if the screenplay for Mostly Martha contained such vomitable life-lesson groaners as Bob Balaban saying, “We both know it’s the recipes you create yourself that are the best.” It may well have, and they simply seemed less shamefully dopey in German with subtitles. (Then again, lines like that mightn’t have been so grim had the trailer not beaten us over the head with them. How beaten over the head? Well, when I went to see the film the manager taking my ticket at the theater said, “Just remember, there’s no recipe book for life,” and I responded, “Yes, but it’s the recipes that you create yourself that are the best.”)
In any case, No Reservations takes its German model, moves it to Bleecker Street in New York City, and populates the tale with Catherine Zeta-Jones as the temperamental chef, Aaron Eckhart as the newly hired sous-chef she can’t abide and Abigail Breslin as the recently orphaned niece Zeta-Jones finds herself raising. Nothing happens you don’t expect. The film follows each and every requirement of the genre—right down to the penultimate reel’s misunderstanding between Zeta-Jones and Eckhart that gets patched up in the final reel—and it does all this with slick professionalism. For a movie so keen on the idea of creating your own recipe, it sure likes to stick to the familiar ones. The only “daring” choice is that of having Philip Glass score the film, and while his score may be excellent, it probably belongs on another movie.
It’s the sort of material that can work just swell with the right cast and director—and therein lies the problem. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something slightly off-putting about Catherine Zeta-Jones, and there’s definitely nothing about her screen presence that cries out for sympathy. Eckhart, on the other hand, is good at likeable scoundrels (see Thank You for Smoking), outright scoundrels (see almost anything else he’s been in) and even as a quirky romantic lead (see Possession). He gets to be none of those things here in the improbable role of a chef who lacks the self-confidence to make it on his own (yeah, right) and insists on working in what appear to be pajama pants and Crocs. Worse, the character seems bogus in other ways. We’re supposed to buy him as an Italian opera-lover, but what do we hear him play for the first three-quarters of the movie? We get “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, “Un Be Di” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and the drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata. In other words, we get the kind of obvious pieces you’d expect from someone trying to pass himself off as an opera fan—or in this case, the sort of thing you’d expect from a movie trying to pass Eckhart off as one.
Abigail Breslin is OK as the orphaned kid, but the tendency to make her precocious is too cute, or at least too Hollywood. The problem is that all this results in no real emotional connection among these characters. They simply feel like pros who are doing exactly what the screenplay requires of them. Why does Zeta-Jones succumb to Eckhart? The only answer I can come up with is that the script says so. The only time the film really comes to life is when it’s dealing with food. When the food is more interesting than the characters making it, there’s something wrong. At bottom, the film is nice to look at, pleasant enough to watch, but thoroughly undistinguished. Rated PG for some sensuality and language.