No Reservations

No Reservations
...there's not much sparkle in the movie and even less spark to the love story.
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By John J. Puccio
The recipe for a romantic comedy has remained essentially unchanged since the days of silent movies. Chaplin was doing the same routine in 1925: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl don't know they're in love, while the audience recognizes their affection for each other immediately. Boy and girl suffer much conflict and contention during the story. Then, just before fade-out, boy and girl finally acknowledge their love. If the film does it well, the audience should leave happy and/or teary eyed. Of course, no decent restaurant would serve only one dish, and no romantic comedy would follow any one recipe. So, every romantic comedy has to have a gimmick. In the case of 2007's "No Reservations," it's a rather tortured variation on the theme. And food. Fine food, a la "Ratatouille," another entrée in a year of food-related pictures. However, if I had to choose one or the other menu item, I'd definitely go with "Ratatouille." I found it a lot more appetizing than the prosaic ingredients in "No Reservations."

Now, here's the thing: The studio did seem to advertise "No Reservations" as a romantic comedy. At least, that's the distinct impression I got from seeing the trailer a half a dozen times leading up to the movie's release. But I don't think anybody told the filmmakers that--not director Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Hearts in Atlantis") and not screenwriter Carol Fuchs, who based her script on German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck's 2001 film "Mostly Martha." They all seemed to think they were doing a mostly straight dramatic piece, an old-fashioned romance filled not only with a few lighthearted moments but much soapy, semi-tragic melodrama. Yet the filmmakers still follow the formula for a traditional romantic-comedy. I don't know what they intended, but what they got was something of a muddle, a presumptive confectionary dessert turned to a soggy puddle on the bottom of the plate.

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Kate Armstrong, a single, compulsive, uptight, workaholic chef, running the kitchen in an upscale New York City restaurant. She's very, very good at her job, which is food, and her job is her life, so much so that she is not above insulting customers who don't like her culinary creations. Kate's boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), insists she see a therapist (Bob Balaban) every week, but for the life of her, Kate cannot understand why she needs it. She's seriously blind to her own faults.

Now, you'd think that in a conventional romantic film, a handsome, happy-go-lucky gentleman would come along to turn Kate's life around and show her how to enjoy the world. And you'd be right, almost. You see, it takes the movie a good deal of its running time to get around to the topic. Instead, it spends the first forty minutes or so in doom and gloom. Within minutes of the opening titles, the film shows us what a miserable and unlikable person Kate is, and then it subjects us to the death of Kate's sister in an automobile accident. Not only that, but Kate's young niece (Abigail Breslin), the divorced sister's daughter, also gets hurt in the accident, and she's left without parents. Kate has the unpleasant task of telling the little girl when she wakes up from her injuries that her mother is dead, and that Kate will be taking care of her from now on.

A disagreeable main character and a death in the family do not exactly make for a promising start for a movie that purports to be either a romantic comedy or a seriocomic romance. What in the world were the scriptwriters thinking of? They wanted to get a little girl into the main character's life--fair enough--but they couldn't think of any other way to do it than by having a loved one die? I mean, come on. This is fiction. The writers could have made up any kind of story to get Kate and the niece together, yet they give us this? Basically, the movie begins as a tragedy and never fully recovers.

Anyway, the handsome, happy-go-lucky gentleman is Nick Palmer, played by Aaron Eckhart. Kate's boss hires him as the restaurant's temporary sous chef, a second in command in the kitchen. You can guess the consequences. Like Kate, he is also a very, very good cook, and she feels immediately threatened by him. It doesn't help that he's outgoing, joyous, opera-loving, and not a little irresponsible. He is, in fact, the opposite of Kate, and everyone loves him except Kate. She not only mistrusts him, she seems to positively hate him, thinking he's out to take over her kitchen. She's not just unkind towards him, she's downright rude, and for reasons unknown to anybody but the scriptwriters, Nick endures these indignities far longer than any normal person might. Then he throws a bit of a tantrum of his own and insists that Kate accept him in the kitchen or he will leave, and he does so in front of the whole staff and the restaurant owner. So Mr. Nice Guy winds up almost as unsympathetic as Kate.

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