I don't like movies in which a strong, confident woman learns (often through humiliation) that her life simply isn't going to be fulfilling until she finds herself a man and maybe a child or two. I don't care if it's Bette Davis in Now, Voyager or Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, it's insulting to single women, and I was a single woman for long enough that I still feel insulted. This was the bias I carried into No Reservations, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a top-notch chef and single woman whose life is obviously missing something, and I don't mean a kitchen blowtorch, either.
Zeta-Jones stars as Kate -- and when a single female character shares the name of the title character in The Taming of the Shrew, alarm bells start ringing in my head. Kate is an untiring perfectionist in the kitchen of the bistro where she works to create lovely and delicious cuisine, and you notice that the men in her domain are relegated to the jobs of servers and line cooks. She has a lovely apartment, she dresses beautifully, but she has to see a therapist for "anger issues" because she insults the diners when they don't like her cooking. Oh, and she's not interested in a relationship with her neighbor or anyone else for that matter.
After a tragic family accident, Kate is faced with the possibility of raising her niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin), who is still suffering from grief and shock. When Kate takes time off from the restaurant, her boss (Patricia Clarkson) hires a man to help out, an Italian cook named Nick (Aaron Eckhart). Kate resents the intrusion, but Nick turns out to be an opera-singing, life-loving guy who also gets along well with kids ... I don't need to draw you a picture.The movie floats along for awhile with no artificial plot elements. A long stretch in the middle was shaping up to be purely character driven, with a focus on Kate and Zoe, and was fairly interesting. Unfortunately, this was broken when a peripheral character raised a tiresome bit of business about custody and inappropriate parenting designed solely to scare us and add some unnecessary tension. In addition, the romantic potential of the two leads is wedged in there with a crowbar -- it's as if someone remembered that No Reservations was supposed to be a romantic comedy and rushed to stick the usual genre conventions in the second half of the film. The movie is a remake of a German film, Mostly Martha, which I haven't seen, so I can't tell you how faithful it is.
Even as a "put your brain in neutral" romantic comedy, No Reservations doesn't work. Nick is supposed to be passionate and inspire passion in others, but instead Eckhart looks goofy, more like a big joking kid than an adult romantic lead. His character seems weird for weirdness' sake. I'm wondering if a European actor would have worked better here, with a sexy accent that seduces the audience. Not a particle of sexual chemistry is present anywhere in the film -- Nick gets along with the little girl better than he does with her aunt. In fact, Eckhart and Clarkson have more chemistry together than he does with Zeta-Jones, which could have made for a much more interesting film.
Zeta-Jones, however, manages the role of a confident, sophisticated woman with a bit of a vulnerable side perfectly -- a calmer Auntie Mame, or a sexier Jane Wyman in Pollyanna. We side with her when she insults the diners, which again undermines any point the film was trying to make about her personal issues. The satisfaction I derived from this movie was in watching many of the actors, who often managed to transcend their flawed roles. Bob Balaban has some of the lamest lines in the film as Kate's therapist, but he's delightful anyway. Patricia Clarkson doesn't get quite enough to do, and her character turns out to be a disappointment, but she's still fun to watch. Brian F. O'Byrne is so charming as Kate's neighbor that it's difficult to understand why she might prefer some opera-singing clown. Breslin reminded me of the young actresses in 1940s melodramas who always looked so sad as they were orphaned or dragged from their parents -- the pale peaked faces of Margaret O'Brien or Natalie Wood.
The original score in No Reservations was composed by Philip Glass, but I would not have been able to tell if I hadn't known beforehand. The score complements the film quite well until the non-original music kicks in -- every time Kate and Nick are alone together, Italian opera plays in the background in an eye-rollingly obvious way. And I could have done without the cover of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a song I think should be retired from movies for the next decade at least, due to overuse.
Even the food in this movie seemed a little disappointing -- few visuals of breathtaking dishes, despite the characters' slaving over them. The coveted cuisine in this film is a saffron sauce, which doesn't display well onscreen; we're supposed to take the characters' word for it. I'm ordinarily very fond of foodie movies, and in fact two of my favorite movies so far this year are foodie films: Ratatouille and Waitress. It's funny -- Waitress is a movie about a woman who feels forced into looking for fulfillment from men and children, but wants to seek refuge in cooking, just like the main character in No Reservations. But the characters and their relationships felt more realistic, and the situations felt less artificial, and overall it was a more rewarding film experience. (Also, the pies looked a lot better than Nick's tiramisu.) No Reservations is mired in cliches and wants us to believe what it tells us, instead of showing us genuine people and emotions.