The word formulaic, when applied to movies, usually means a story line or structure that's so often used, that the audience arrives at the end before the movie does. But as with some of our favorite fables, familiarity can bring comfort. Think of it as coming home to something known and trusted, that you can cuddle up to, relax, and feel assured, at least for a while, that all is well. Add Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin to the snuggle and you could do a whole lot worse.
That's the redeeming quality of “No Reservations.” It’s like comfort food, but for reasons key to the plot, you can’t have it right away. That’s because Kate (Catherine Zeta Jones) a top New York chef, remains oblivious to the simple pleasures of one’s blankie and a bowl of mac and cheese.
A self-described control freak, she runs the kitchen of the restaurant 22 Bleecker likea drill sergeant. A rare and temperamental talent, she caters to no one — neither the restaurant owner nor the customers; Kate’s world depends on keeping everything in perspective — hers.
So when two people unexpectedly pop up in her life, from different origins, it throws a bit of a crimp in a well-ordered routine that seldom extends beyond the world of sauces, lobsters, and pasta.
The first arrives by way of tragedy. Her sister, coming for a visit, is killed in a car accident. Kate’s niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin), also in the car survives with minor injuries. Suddenly charged with raising her sister’s elementary-school aged daughter, Kate becomes a single working mother to a grieving child — far outside either’s comfort zone.
The second awaits her back at work where she finds that Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a new sous chef, has been hired to assist her. Blessed with a large personality and a knack for improvisation and humor, he’s an instant hit in a kitchen that heretofore labored under a disciplinarian.
Already very accomplished in the culinary arts, Nick has nonetheless come to study under Kate, for whom he has great respect. But his significant skills, new ideas, and engaging ways can’t help but impact an operation, which Kate by all rights had considered hers.
When she's forced to bring Zoe to work with her, Nick quickly turns the young girl’s frown upside down with his trademark style. Kate, who has remained a professional distance from Nick, regarding him as a threat, begrudgingly acknowledges her appreciation.
As with a great recipe, all the elements are now present in the kitchen. They just need to get mixed with tender care, under the appropriate temperature and atmosphere.
This responsibility falls to director Scott Hicks (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), who proves himself as adept as Kate and Nick.
In the role of Nick, Eckhart gives us the easygoing, talented guy that women like to be with, and men wish to be. The enchanting chef draws Zoe out of her post-traumatic shell, and in a show of reciprocity, receives an invitation from the young lady, for dinner at the home of his adversarial colleague.
The portrayal of this young cupid by Oscar Nominee Breslin, who wowed us last year in “Little Miss Sunshine,” gains our sympathy, without over-wrenching our hearts. Her range from sorrow to giddy excitement is executed with the grace of the talented professional she is increasingly proving to be.
To further belabor the analogies of the kitchen, “No Reservations” is without the heavy ingredients of French cuisine, the spice of a New Orleans gumbo, or digestive challenge of a New York Steak.
This movie is comfort food, and aspires to nothing more. And it's pretty satisfying.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by other Examiner critics.