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Posted on Thursday, July 26, 2007

Romance with a side of laughs

By MARY F. POLS

Contra Costa Times

When they succeed, romantic comedies leave us hungry for love, even when we've adjusted our expectations of companionship downward from telegenic movie stars. The satisfying culinary romance "No Reservations," featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, divides and conquers by making us crave the utterly attainable - spaghetti with fresh basil - as intensely as we do either of its unattainable leads.

Zeta-Jones plays Kate, the talented chef at a Manhattan restaurant called 22 Bleeker. A single thirtysomething, she is more fixated on finding the perfect balance of ingredients than a mate. Through some not very subtle clues - she never smiles, does crossword puzzles and enjoys spending time in the walk-in freezer - we learn Kate needs a good defrosting.

The movie, a remake of the German film "Mostly Martha," gets right down to business by sending in a kid (Abigail Breslin) and a clown (Eckhart) to do the job.

The kid is Kate's niece Zoe, who comes to live with her aunt in the wake of a tragedy, a drama brought to screen movingly yet with dignity by director Scott Hicks ("Shine").

Eckhart plays Nick, the new sous chef at 22 Bleeker. He wooed "Erin Brockovich" and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Possession," but Eckhart has never played such an absurdly perfect dreamboat before. Granted, Nick wears orange Crocs in the kitchen, but he transcends them. We just want to run our hands through his tousled strawberry blonde hair while he sings Italian opera and makes us pizza. Predictably, Kate's specialty is fussy French cuisine, Nick's the more obviously sensual Italian.

Introverted Kate shoots daggers at this extrovert but Nick doesn't mind. He watches her as attentively as a dog waiting for his mistress to take him for a walk. But he's not just some slobbering, sweet lab, more like a one of those smart sheep-herding dogs in "Babe."

In last month's "Ratatouille," the emphasis was on the creation and enjoyment of food, from the bubbling pots to that first forkful. The focus in "No Reservations" is more on food as object. Kate seems to devote whole sessions with her shrink (Bob Balaban, giving credence to awful lines like "It's OK to let people in sometimes") to talking about melding flavors, but when we see her in action she's usually fussing over arranging a completed dish, rather than building one from scratch.

"Ratatouille" made me want to cook. "No Reservations" made me want to eat. Perhaps there is still a difference between art and commerce.

HHH

Review

No Reservations

Rated PG for some sensuality and language

Now showing: Oakmont 8, Lakewood Ranch Cinemas, Royal Palm 20, Hollywood 20, Sarasota 12