I wish there were a cookbook for life.
— Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
Alas, even the title is trite. No Reservations, from its first frames, offers up a decidedly tiresome life lesson plan for Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is introduced in mid-flight of fancy, describing the ideal way to prepare quails — with truffles. Kate is (you guessed, of course) a chef, and not a little bit of a control freak as well. She’s describing these “love birds” to her therapist (Bob Balaban), who listens with the sort of partly patient, partly distracted patience affected by most therapists in the movies. Kate remains fixed on her recipe, passionate and determined, it seems, to avoid his gaze. “Why do you come to see me every week?” he asks at last. Ah, she says haughtily, because her boss insists.
Cut to Kate at work, her apron tight around her waist, her staff at the ready. Her boss, Paula (a woefully used Patricia Clarkson), watches with visible tension. Kate’s a “magician” in the kitchen, but short-tempered. When one diner insists his foie gras isn’t cooked “properly,” she charges out to his table to instruct him. He ends up leaving, his date looking embarrassed, so you know Kate’s probably at least partly right, but Paula sees the business problem: “You can’t make a scene every time someone criticizes your cooking!” she says, asserting that she only keeps her on because, she almost sighs, “You’re one of the better chefs in this city.”
One of? Kate fumes. At her Greenwich Village apartment (just a couple of blocks from the restaurant), she has no messages, no pet, no life. She wakes at 4:30am to shop, where she pretends camaraderie with the guys at fish market while wearing her I’m-so-down-to-earth cap and black jacket. Kate beams. If Paula thinks she’s too exacting, at least Fish Vendor Bob (Fulvio Cecere) appreciates her diligence!
Of course, she can’t keep up this lonely careerism and superiority. And so, by the end of this day, Kate’s life is changed dramatically and by great contrivance, when her sister dies in a car wreck, leaving her legally and emotionally responsible for nine-year-old Zoe (Abigail Breslin). She’s the sort of kid who wears striped socks and multi-colored layered outfits, not quite funky, but adorably independent-minded and thoughtful, in other words, just the sort of kid who will help to warm up Aunt Kate. The process takes a series of wholly unsurprising turns. First, the mourning: Kate locks herself in the freezer at work and weeps, at which point Paula rightly tells her to go home. For an instant, the movie looks like it might consider the pain of loss, even the sisters’ relationship. But no.
Second, the upset: Kate returns to work to find a new sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart). He’s all cute and cuddly in the kitchen, singing opera, telling jokes, entertaining the staff, and above all, not sweating the customers. Though Kate calls him a “crazy man” (in her kitchen no less), Paula calls him “exuberant.” It’s obvious what will happen next, even if you haven’t seen the tighter, more architectural film this one remakes, Sandra Nettelbeck’s Mostly Martha (2001). Copying that film’s plot pretty exactly (though it does remove one complicating character altogether, namely, Zoe’s father), No Reservations changes the tone by way of simplification.
Glossy in the most tedious sense, it reduces each plot point to the glib shorthand that characterizes most U.S. romantic comedies. Zoe’s confusion and sadness are telegraphed by internal framing (Kate watching her from eth doorway); Zoe’s won over when Nick slips her a bowl of pasta (her aunt has been making inedible fancy food); Kate remembers her sister in slow-motion haziness, instigated when she rereads a letter describing her “gorgeous” baby. And oh yes, Zoe’s name means “life.”
Nick’s role in Kate’s rehabilitation is equally bland. Trying to make up for forgetting her at school one afternoon, Kate grants her one wish, which is, of course, to invite Nick for dinner (trained in Italian cooking, he makes pizza). As soon as Kate insists, “I’m not a dessert person,” guess whose Tiramisu changes her mind? And when she suggests to her therapist that “There has to be someone better suited to this: how do their minds work?”, it’s not long before she and Zoe have a breakthrough over their shared judgment of a punk-girl agency babysitter.
As conventional as the storyline may be, it’s still troubling, for two reasons. One, it assumes Kate, so powerful, self-confident, and driven, must be “softened.” And two, it achieves this end by granting her a ready-made nuclear unit. That No Reservations can’t imagine an alternative for such an odd and admittedly difficult individual makes all the energetic food-loving seem a little sad — more sublimation than revelation.