No Reservations

An English-language remake of Sandra Nettelbecks 2001 German feature Mostly Martha, Scott Hicks No Reservations is well made and capably performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, though it feels so bloodless and unnecessary that it never justifies a reason to exist. The movie has a plastic polish that in its methodical construction feels creepy and even off-putting.

A first-produced script by Carol Fuchs, the screenwriter appends slavishly the structure and storyline of Nettelbecks original. It yields two very particular films, moving from dark to light, and the lack of cohesion makes a particularly unsatisfactory Hollywood transfer.

The African-born Australian helmer, still best-known for Shine, Hicks brings very little subtlety of expression or personal investment to the material. At his worst moments, like his previous disappointing work, “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999) and the Stephen King adaptation Hearts in Atlantis (2001), his touch resembles that of a hammer.

The fealty to the original offers little surprise or discovery. The first part introduces a talented, gifted artist, Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones), one of the top chefs in New York. Shes an aesthete par excellence, a sensualist armed with a discriminate palette and knowing regard around the kitchen.

Kate's life consists of a set of rigid rules she refuses to break. The demands of her job have rendered her an emotional recluse, seemingly detached from all manner of emotional interaction. She explains to her therapist (Bob Balaban) that romantic commitment involves a loss of control, a surrender of feeling and emotion. She is not wired that way.

Kate is also not keen to disagreement or criticism of her work, a stubbornness that creates some conflict with her boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), the owner of Greenwich Village restaurant.

Kates orderly and emotionally cautious world is irrevocably shattered by tragedy-the death of her sister in a car accident-that leaves her suddenly the guardian of her precocious niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin, of Little Miss Sunshine fame). Grief and loss are difficult to convey in a proper and sympathetic register.

Hicks emphatic style, marked by particularly manipulative actions of a recorded voice message and a letter written to Kate by her sister, verge on the offensive, given the cavalier and blunt way Hicks handles them. Rather programmatically, the movie establishes the conflict of a talented, emotionally withdrawn woman who must suddenly learn to become more human.

Kates temporary absence from her work produces the movies split identity, the workplace comedy with romantic overtones and screwball farce that were elemental to the high style of the genre during Hollywood's classic period.

Kate is upset to learn that Paula has hired Nick Palmer (Aaron Eckhart). Kate is the joyless prig who is brilliantly effective at her job. Naturally, Nick is her complete opposite, funny, playful, open, and even gregarious. Hes also an Italian opera buff who kicks up the volume on Nessun Dorma movement from Turandot. Theres a crazy man in my kitchen, Kate complains to Paula. Hes not crazy, hes just exuberant, Paula responds.

No Reservations, a terrible title by the way, veers between the intricate byplay of Kate and Zoe, built around her efforts of Kate to find a way to communicate and open up to her niece, and the more colorful activities of the restaurant that produces the romantically tentative movements of the two adults.

The film's second part is far more effective and satisfying. Hicks direction never really takes off and goes for the unexpected and revealing where he takes risks with the story or the characters.

Working with the excellent cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Jane Campions The Piano and others), Hicks issues a clean, workmanlike style. They work in the more difficult widescreen and they deploy the cinemascope format in occasionally interesting ways, sometimes flattening and confining the space of the kitchen to accelerate the frenetic pace and tension of the workplace. There is also a sharp, expressive use of the blue liquid light of the kitchens freezer that Kate uses as a sanctuary.

Zeta-Jones has always been a very recessive actress, somewhat cold and efficient and afraid to really unleash herself. Her work here is direct and straightforward. She acknowledges the limitations of the characters without ever transcending her parts.

The great Italian actor Sergio Castellitto played the romantic rival in the original, and Eckhart is not quite at his level of inspiration. Playing against type (Remember “In the Company of Men”, he demonstrates a lightness and touch that makes this one of his most appealing performances.

Breslin, who was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine,” has discipline and finesse that exist well outside the range of most professionals her own age. But she is given some of the worst material, and is asked to make something revealing and powerful from the largely underdeveloped ideas.

The movies attempts at darker and more unsettling currents are pretty much a disaster. In the second half, the script becomes heavily incident-driven, which is to the detriment of the movies rhythm. Aware of the dramatic conceit, the filmmakers insert more troubling passages, such as Zoes principal threatening Kate with reporting her to state authorities, or most problematic, the sudden disappearance of the child. These crudely interwoven threads create a clash of styles and tones that offset the movies entire equilibrium.

Just as most of the movie feels as though it were unfolding on a set, No Reservations never quite achieves a sense of emotional believability of the messiness, spontaneity and unpredictability of life, intruding and shaping character. The picture feels like a dream with splotches of bad actions that's much closer in nerve and feeling to a fairy tale that magically deletes the pain, irrational madness of relationships, and growing up.

Credits

Running time: 103 minutes
MPAA rating: PG

Warner release of a Castle Rock Entertainment and Village Road Show production.
Director: Scott Hicks
Screenwriter: Carol Fuchs, based on the screenplay “Mostly Martha” by Sandra Nettelbeck
Producers: Kerry Heysen, Sergio Aguero
Executive producers: Susan Cartsonis, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Barbara Ling
Music: Philip Glass
Co-producer: Mari Joe Winkler-Ioffreda
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Pip Karmel

Cast:

Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
Nick (Aaron Eckhart)
Zoe (Abigail Breslin)
Paula (Patricia Clarkson)
Leah (Jenny Wade)
Therapist: (Bob Balaban)
Sean: (Brian F. O'Byrne)