July 26, 2007

No Reservations - and Even Less Fuss

Hick's remake of Mostly Martha emerges as the year's anti-gourmand food film

By Cathy Erway

Too many chefs: Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones in No Reservations (Photo: Warner Bros.)

"Look, this is my kitchen," the stern-faced head chef tells her insouciant new sous-chef. "I’ve worked really hard to get here, and I’m not going to let you take it from me.” Yet through a gradual dismantling of her tireless gourmet character, this is exactly what happens in No Reservations, the American remake of Germany's acclaimed 2001 export Mostly Martha. The film is director Scott Hicks’ lightest, fluffiest work to date -- like a fine soufflé, only he doesn’t much cater toward lovers of soufflé. It is a work about food in which a slab of pound cake with a squirt of ReddiWip might suffice for soufflé, pizza and fish sticks reign over steak au poivre and focused artistry in the kitchen distracts from one’s enjoyment of the greater things in life.

Which is to say, in foodie terminology, that he doesn’t really like food at all.

No Reservations transplants Mostly Martha to the charming West Village, where the career-driven young chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs the kitchen of a moderately upscale bistro called 22 Bleecker. Following the original film’s plot, Kate’s world is first upended by the arrival of Nick, the irreverent sous-chef portrayed by Aaron Eckhart. A car accident claims her sister's life soon after, and Kate becomes the caretaker of her 9-year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin).

Trouble surfaces shortly after Zoe moves in, when Kate attempts to warm up to her by fixing dinner at home. She slides a sparingly plated whole fish -- trout, perhaps, with fresh lemon slices -- onto Zoe’s place. Fish head and eyeballs surge at the camera in a half-second close-up (incidentally, the most intimate food image in the film). It is not meant to stimulate the appetite. Disgusted, Zoe feigns fullness and leaves the table; the joke is on the master chef. Surely, one might sense, the source film's Martha would never have tolerated such ridicule from her faraway screen audience. Yet Kate continues to peck at her meal, clueless and alone.

Food takes to the background throughout the film -- a surprise given how much training the cast and crew received from the French Culinary Institute in preparation for the film. Kate’s competence in the kitchen is largely conveyed through compliments and recited reviews rather than performed. She is wont to ramble on about quail to her concerned psychiatrist (Bob Balaban), but there is barely a mouthwatering shot. Instead, the camera prefers to focus on Zeta-Jones’ face, or what's more, the frustration on it when she affixes a crown of sugar to a plated dessert. Her reaction when the sugar breaks is not one of healthy passion; the froufrou plating design seems emblematic of the emptiness of her success.

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Preoccupations like Kate’s were once extolled as talent in memorable food films like Babette’s Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman. By today’s standards (particularly the cult of the celebrity chef) Hicks depicts them as more of a personality flaw than finesse -- a condition gone awry. They fall in line with her other edicts in life: no dating men who live in the same building; no eating outside of mealtimes. Moreover, if food were the language through which other chef-heroes like Babette were able to express their feelings, it is a lousy one in No Reservations. Having failed to make a connection through cooking, the most prevalent bond between aunt and niece occurs not in the kitchen but on a day when Kate decides to skip work and let Zoe stay home from school. Like a wilted piece of garnish, food is only a small part of the family drama that takes precedence in the film. It could be just as well that Zeta-Jones were playing a veterinarian, presiding over unruly interns and balking at the addition of a new head nurse.

At a recent press conference for the film in New York, Eckhart shrugged when asked about his favorite foods. “I’m just kind of a surfer," he said. "I just like fish tacos and stuff like that.” His character, Nick, isn’t dissimilar in taste. It is his more approachable food perspective that triggers change in the film. Sporting perpetual bedhead and a pair of orange Crocs, Nick’s clownish, unpretentious style initially sends bolts of rage up Kate’s spine. His loosely established Italian cuisine expertise is embellished by a habit of blasting opera -- though, singing aloud in boastful bravado, it’s difficult to tell whether Nick actually loves it just or loves making fun of it. He first appeases Zoe with a giant bowl of simple spaghetti in tomato sauce, and later this youthful duo prepare a surprise pizza party for Kate at her own apartment -- confining her to her room as they cook.

Nick and Kate eventually open a family restaurant bursting with kids, babies and dogs. In a final scene, Zoe shakes powdered sugar on a plate of waffles a bit too zealously. Kate’s eyes momentarily bulge -- “too much!” -- then quickly soften into a smile, and Zoe proudly takes the plate to a seated customer. In order to be a happy, successful chef with a family, so to speak, one need only trade their culinary standards for a cool that allows for a child to gauge the finishing touches of dishes.

The contrast between No Reservations’ take on food and that of this year’s most celebrated film, Ratatouille, are difficult to ignore. Hailing the latter film recently in The New Yorker, David Denby wrote: “At a time when many Americans have so misunderstood the ethos of democracy that they hate being outclassed by anyone ... Ratatouille suggests that some omnivores are better than others.” No Reservations inhabits the flipside. When Zeta-Jones shrilly repeats a co-worker’s suggestion of feeding Zoe fish sticks, she plays the princess to a hilt: “Yeah, I know what they are,” she smirks. Curiously, though, rather than filleting and breading some fresh fish (or at least trimming its head off), Kate gives in to serving the frozen kiddie fare -- and everyone is the merrier for it. For an adaptation of one of recent cinema’s finest food hours, No Reservations is likewise familiar fare, super-sized and Hollywood-processed to nearly unrecognizable glut.

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