The Reeler


July 26, 2007

No Reservations

Mostly Martha remake's key ingredients get lost in translation

In the realm of American remakes of Euro-favorites that were fine on their own, there are certainly more egregious candidates than Mostly Martha, Sandra Nettlebeck’s 2001 sleeper about a driven female chef whose finely tuned life turns cacophonous.

The Lives of Others, for instance. Another German film starring Martina Gedeck (the lead in Mostly Martha), this year’s Oscar-winner is set for an American remake, the idea of which, given the film’s intense submersion in East German pedigree, politics and history, smacks of typical Hollywood logical fallacy. A character like Martha, however, is as Manhattan as they come; easily transplanted and perhaps even enhanced by the trip to Type A’s-ville. However, where Mostly Martha managed to fold its rather plotty conceit (a young niece is foisted upon the top chef after her sister’s death, a raging Italian threatens her kitchen and her virtue) into an organic world of people and problems, in No Reservations, Scott Hicks’ stubbornly torpid remake, the conceit props up the characters and vice versa. It’s as though screenwriter Carol Fuchs re-imagined the script as one of those daggy Modern Love columns in the Sunday Times.

More anal than oral, Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is just corking with stuff she doesn’t do. She doesn’t eat in the afternoon or drink at work; she’s not a dessert person, a neighbor person, a dog person, a kid person, or a planet Earth person, frankly. We learn most of this because she states it outright, just as Patricia Clarkson, who plays executive chef Kate’s boss at a tony Bleecker Street restaurant, suffers the indignity of having to fire off a hoary, “If you weren’t so good I would fire you!” by way of introduction. This on the heels of the opening scene, in which Kate sabotages a work-mandated appointment with a therapist (Bob Balaban); if Kate weren’t so good, you see, her boss would fire her. Why then blurt out what was just made clear? I offer it as an out-of-the-gate example of unconfident scripting that either doesn’t trust the audience to infer the obvious, or doesn’t trust itself to do the job -- a tendency that only worsens, continually lumping up what should be a smooth and pleasantly forgettable sorbet of a film.

No Reservations’ soft-pedal, bicycle-built-for-three charms should be hard to resist, and they are, until its squeaky-wheel overkill makes it impossible for any self-respecting viewer to stay on board. Zeta-Jones, with her Wonder Woman tumble of onyx locks, is believably steely but stiff in all the wrong ways as Kate; Abigail Breslin as the newly motherless Zoe brings her preternatural I-kid-you-not calm to some poorly conceived acting out; and Aaron Eckhart is nicely cast as Mr. Personality -- Nick, a sous-chef with sous-confidence issues, serving up the same unlikely, romantic stalwart quality he brought to Erin Brockovich.

Kate’s initial cluelessness as Zoe’s guardian generates a few cute, airy moments, and Nick (Eckhart, determined to create a character despite the script, lets his shaggy Muppet lid, busy-printed pyjama bottom pants and heinous orange Crocs do most of the work) shows a gasp of life here and there, bringing Zoe out of her shell and Kate into the world of the living. But the developing relationships between each of these three characters don't get enough room to breathe, and the film tends to hyperventilate all over its magic moments, such as the dinner date Zoe orchestrates to get Nick and Kate cooking, which devolves into some tinny laughter and la la la over homemade pizza and tupperware tiramisu.

As New York eye candy you can’t really ask for more: food porn, apartment porn, wardrobe porn and a blindfolded Zeta-Jones suckling a spoon are hard to argue with, especially when all are covered in a veil of buttery key light. The Phillip Glass score ripples at hand like a light Prosecco, at least when it’s not being swapped out for opera and checkerboard tablecloth chestnuts (Nick is all things Italian, lest we forget). But No Reservations never cuts loose the way its heroine is supposed to, and the anticipated transports and transformations arrive with all the joy and surprise of the 5:55 to Pleasantville.

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