Review: 'No Reservations' a tepid romantic comedy

In “No Reservations” — the latest release from the foreign-to-familiar remake mill — culinary and other passions receive, at best, a palatable sugarcoating and, more often, a wholly artificial rendering. She makes a killer saffron sauce and he’s an unrivaled pasta man, but these gastronomic marvels, in and out of the kitchen, deliver more mush than magic.

A Manhattan-set version of the German dramedy “Mostly Martha,” the story centers on workaholic chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who runs an efficient but joyless kitchen at an upscale restaurant. A closed-off control freak, Kate tongue-lashes customers who criticize her foie gras. She turns therapy sessions into recipe trials with her shrink as the guinea pig.

Naturally, a good man and a deserving kid are what Kate needs, and, true to the formula, these elements arrive in rocky packages.

First, Kate inherits newly orphaned 9-year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). The girl rejects her aunt’s highbrow cooking and shaky attempts at parenting. Then zesty new sous chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) appears, singing opera and charming the kitchen staff Kate has alienated.

Feeling threatened by Nick and frustrated with Zoe, Kate must connect with both in order to thrive professionally and personally.

The film begins decently. There’s vigor in Kate’s food-related tirades. Fish-market visits contain personality. Early Kate-Nick friction hints that the inevitable romance will have heat.

But as directed hired-hand style by Scott Hicks (“Shine”) and written (from Sandra Nettelbeck’s original screenplay) by Carol Fuchs, the film quickly devolves into predictable goo. It lacks snap as a romantic comedy, dimension as a domestic drama, and character as a food flick.

Instead of seriously addressing the grief of a child or the struggle of a woman who fears her own passions, it features lines such as, “I wish there was a cookbook for life” and syrupy montages. “Sleepless in Seattle” scored more points from tiramisu.

The actors work no miracles. Zeta-Jones, whom Hollywood usually knows what to do with, not only shows none of the depth of “Martha” counterpart Martina Gedeck but displays little of her own usual charisma. Eckhart, whom Hollywood never knows what to do with, is likable but, forced to suppress his natural edge, he can’t make Nick interesting. Breslin is skilled for a 10-year-old, but she shouldn’t be expected to carry the emotional weight of a feature film.

Indie notables Bob Balaban and Patricia Clarkson, in, respectively, the psychiatrist and restaurant-owner roles, also deserve better.

No Reservations **

Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson

Written by Carol Fuchs, based on the film “Mostly Martha”

Directed by Scott Hicks

Rated PG

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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