[2 August 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Catherine Zeta-Jones dons a crisp white apron, cinches it around her waist, and gets busy cooking up asparagus terrine, quail with truffle sauce, blood-red entrecote, and other signature dishes that have made her known as one of the best chefs in town.
A workaholic with no social life, Kate - as she’s called in Warner Bros.’ $28 million, gastro-centric rom-com “No Reservations” - runs her kitchen with military brio. And then everything turns upside down: Her sister dies in a car crash and Kate is left to take care of her 9-year-old niece. With no parenting skills, no support network of friends, no life beyond the swinging doors of her state-of-the-art scullery, well, what’s a beautiful single gal in a toque to do?
It will for fans of “Mostly Martha,” the 2002 art-house hit exported from Germany that starred Martina Gedeck in the title role. The names have been changed, but the plot - and the entrees, and even the framing of many shots - remains the same.
Still, the differences between “No Reservations” and “Mostly Martha” (called “Bella Martha” in its homeland) speak volumes. American audiences want cute, want big, want pretty - or so many Hollywood execs believe.
For one thing, “No Reservations” is a star vehicle. Gedeck, who played the tormented, traitorous actress in this year’s Oscar-winning foreign film, “The Lives of Others,” is an attractive woman, certainly. But as the harried chef in “Mostly Martha,” she gets out of bed in the morning and looks like she just got out of bed.
Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is your run-of-the-mill Hollywood goddess. If there’s a moment in “No Reservations” when she breaks a sweat, I missed it.
But the more significant changes from the German-language original to studio remake - apart from relocating the eatery from Hamburg to Greenwich Village, and a mega-boost in production money (you’ve got to pay a model-maker for those sliceable fake truffles) - is in the Cute Quotient, the Happy Factor.
This is a story about death, after all. A little girl (Maxime Foerste in the original, “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin in the redo) has lost her mother, a woman has lost her sister. In “Mostly Martha,” the grieving is palpable - and the search for the biological father becomes a key element of the third act.
In “No Reservations,” directed with polish by Australian Scott Hicks (of “Shine” fame), the death stuff feels more like a plot mechanism. It’s to be stepped around as quickly and gingerly as possible. As for the real dad, forget it. Gone.
In “Mostly Martha,” little Lina has a teddy bear. In “No Reservations,” little Zoe’s bedroom looks like a Toys R Us storage facility. In “Mostly Martha,” when the handsome Italian sous chef (Sergio Castellitto) comes over to cook Martha a meal, the scene - with the girl as matchmaker, looking for a surrogate dad and a boyfriend for her aunt - is romantic, the lights dimmed, there’s even a montage. In “No Reservations,” a million candles are lit when the dimple-chinned sous chef (dimple-chinned Aaron Eckhart) comes over, and his gourmet feast gets laid out beneath a set-designed safari tent.
I hate to think what will happen when Sydney Pollack delivers his remake of the aformentioned “The Lives of Others” - yes, seriously, Hollywood purchased the rights for this dark drama about ratting East Berliners and German Communist spies in the days before the Wall came down. Will the Stasi, the nasty secret police, be recast as comically bumbling potbellied bureaucrats?
And what about “Cache,” Michael Haneke’s chillingly enigmatic tale of a Paris intellectual being secretly videotaped and stalked? Ron Howard, good ol’ Opie, the director of “The Da Vinci Code” and the serious-minded “A Beautiful Mind,” is on board to direct the paranoid thriller.
Probably no film I’ve written about has prompted more e-mail and calls than “Cache.” Its ambiguous, unresolved ending - like the jolting fadeout in the “Sopranos” finale - infuriated and frustrated American audiences. You can bet that Howard and his screenwriters are going to take a seriously simplistic turn away from the French-language original’s puzzling denouement.
There have been successful translations from subtitles to Tinseltown: Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar-nabbing “The Departed” was a roiling, ricocheting remake of Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak’s Hong Kong, bullets-flying cops-and-crooks spree, “Infernal Affairs.” John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven,” the 1960 Western redo, brilliantly reinterpreted Akira Kurosawa’s classic “The Seven Samurai.”
And what would Sarah Michelle Gellar do without spooky Japanese thrillers? The Buffy star earned millions top-lining the U.S. remakes of “The Grudge” and “The Grudge 2,” and next year she’ll star in “Addicted,” based on South Korean filmmaker Park Yeong-hun’s taut mystery “Jungdok.”
In the `70s and `80s, France exported a flock of featherweight farces for hit-seeking Hollywood. “Three Men and a Baby,” “The Woman in Red,” “The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,” “Birds of a Feather” - all had their origins in Paris studios. Don’t the words innocuous piffle sound French, anyway?
Earlier this year, Chris Rock served up one of the more improbable reinterpretations of a French flick: “I Think I Love My Wife,” a black-centric comedy about marital uncertainty, based on French New Wave godhead Eric Rohmer’s 1972 gem “Chloe in the Afternoon” (or “Love in the Afternoon”). Rock’s didn’t really work - movie-wise, or on the box-office charts.
Nor did the Zach Braff vehicle “The Last Kiss,” last year’s bomb redo of a steamy Italian art-house entry about late-twentysomething adultery and marriage called “L’Ultimo bacio.”
But in its never-ending quest for the next hit, Hollywood continues to train its searchlight beams on foreign shores, looking for the next tragic tale, violent crime drama, J-horror creep show, or romantic comedy that it can cute up and dumb down.
Distributors of foreign films on the art-house circuit have long been wailing about the waning box office for subtitled fare. But that’s only because the army of American studio-development execs busy watching this stuff gets to see movies for free.