In "No Reservations," a perfect metaphor for the movie itself is the plate of frozen fish sticks Catherine Zeta-Jones' gourmet chef, Kate, fixes when her 9-year-old niece, Zoe, refuses to eat anything else.
They're just fish sticks -- familiar, generic, suitable for a wide variety of palates -- but it's the way she arranges them, stacked on top of one another like some delicate, intricate sculpture, that makes them seem appealing.
You've seen all this before (and if you've seen "Mostly Martha," the 2001 German film "No Reservations" is a faithful remake of, you really have seen it before). But everyone involved is so pedigreed, so capable, they make the experience go down easier that it ordinarily might.
Scott Hicks ("Shine") is the director; Stuart Dryburgh, an Oscar nominee for "The Piano," provides the warm, elegant cinematography; the score comes from Philip Glass (and it's as insistent as ever).
And of course there is the cast, which also features Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Bob Balaban and Patricia Clarkson. You really can't go wrong with these people -- after all, clunky food analogies ("I wish there was a cookbook for life") would sound painful coming out of anyone's mouth.
The always ravishing Zeta-Jones is the one who gets to utter that little morsel in the script from Carol Fuchs, based on the Sandra Nettelbeck original. Kate is an uptight control freak whose temper is as famous as the dishes she whips up at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan's West Village. Predictably, because she's the heroine in a romantic comedy, this means her life will be thrown into turmoil and she will be forced to loosen up and let people in.
Zoe (an increasingly adorable Breslin from "Little Miss Sunshine") helps with that by moving into her apartment after Kate's sister is killed in a car crash. She doesn't want to be there and Kate has no idea what to do with her; she prepares duck for Zoe's lunch and wonders why the girl won't eat it. (Her therapist, played by Balaban, is the one who suggests the aforementioned fish sticks.) Eventually Kate and Zoe arrive at a peaceful, if awkward, co-existence.
But then there's Nick (the shaggy, square-jawed Eckhart), a hunky sous chef who moves into her kitchen and, eventually into her heart. Having trained in Italy, he loves to blare opera and he tells lots of jokes, which keeps everyone upbeat as the orders go in and out. (Clarkson plays the no-nonsense restaurant owner who hires him.)
Kate returns from bereavement leave and is duly appalled by the invasion; she also feels threatened. Nick will prove that he's too good to be true, though, in every regard. Because they're such opposites they will, of course, clash, but we also know that their banter will morph into romance. Totally formulaic, but Eckhart has so much charisma, Kate (and we) may as well surrender.
This leads to obligatory cutesy montages (about two too many, if you're counting) of this newfound trio bonding over food and bike rides and snapping pictures in those wacky photo booths, which always seem to show up in bonding montages. Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are an uneasy fit for each other, but they make the most of it.
But be warned: The ads for "No Reservations" accentuate the light, flirty moments. The film is much more gut-wrenching than it looks, especially when director Hicks trains the camera on Breslin's wise, sensitive face. Zoe has to endure some pretty devastating life changes for such a little girl, which the movie doesn't try to sugarcoat.
And while the character was written to be precocious, Breslin has a disarming stillness and sincerity about her. If she doesn't get to you at least once, you may want to check your pulse.