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The Hollywood marketing machine has done it again. Once more the studios, having no faith in the American audience to be interested in an intelligent and witty film (and unfortunately I can’t say as I blame them), have taken a movie and advertised it as something it really isn’t. Whether you’re looking at the poster or the trailer, No Reservations comes across as the next awful, syrupy romantic comedy to be cranked out of the machine and slapped with a catchy, smarmy title. In reality there’s quite a bit more to the film than your average Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks heartstring-tugger, but the injustice doesn’t stop there.
The movie is a remake of a much better foreign film. Bella Martha, a German movie made in 2002 which was incredibly well received by critics around the world. Hollywood, ever desperate for a good idea (heaven knows they’re few and far between these days) decided it wanted in on a piece of the pie. Fearing that too many Americans are too lazy to be troubled with subtitles (and again, I’m sorry to say they’re probably right), Hollywood opted to completely redo the film. The result is a good movie, though probably only so good because the movie it copied was excellent.
Caught up in the hectic, self-absorbed life of a renowned New York chef, Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) lives for her job running the kitchen at 22 Bleeker restaurant and revels in executing it with almost painful precision. Unfortunately, a car accident claims the life of her free-spirited sister and leaves Kate to look after her orphaned niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). In a pinch for a head chef while Kate takes some time to figure things out, the owner of 22 Bleeker hires up and coming sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart), whose laid back style clashes with Kate’s uptight nature.
Despite the opportunity for painful “cooking as a metaphor for life” clichés and stereotypical romantic entanglements, the movie artfully avoids those pitfalls, replacing them with bits of clever comedy and fleeting moments of tender human emotion. What sinks the soufflé is the movie's predictable ending. It’s hard not to know exactly where the story is headed and what’s going to happen next. At least one little surprise would have been a nice treat, but instead No Reservations plays it by the book from start to finish.
Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones share a tender chemistry on screen, but I think Aaron Eckhart could probably have great chemistry with just about anyone. The guy is a genius, period. After all, Zeta-Jones hasn’t had any chemistry since burning things up with Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. Whether or not it’s purely Eckhart’s influence, there’s some spark of new life from the actress and she manages the rare feat of breaking through the crust that seems to burden most of her roles. And then there’s Abigail Breslin. While her character is generally reduced to being the summer sun that defrosts Kate’s emotional iceberg, Breslin turns up the charm and tears and never misses a step.
Roll in a top notch score, a near perfect supporting cast, and the kind of thoughtful cinematography one would never expect from a traditional American date flick, and you end up with much more than the cheesy rom-com being touted in the previews. Director Scott Hicks brings the same dexterity that he showed in Hearts in Atlantis and Shine, but its still not quite enough to make the movie a world-class effort. That honor remains with the original German offering Bella Marta, and anyone willing to admit literacy and bear with the subtitles would no doubt agree.