Pop culture's creative artist du jour is the chef, with kitchen celebrities on constant display in print and on television. The third fine-dining movie of the year (after Cheeni Kum and Ratatouille), No Reservations bears no relation to the identically titled Travel Channel show starring snarky Anthony Bourdain. This No Reservations is a portrait of a persnickety chef (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose elaborate dishes reflect her need to control her emotional life. The sudden death of her sister leaves her the guardian of her devastated 8-year-old niece (Abigail Breslin), and the simultaneous arrival of a free-spirited sous chef (Aaron Eckhart) both conspire to disrupt her careful life.
No Reservations closely resembles its source, the 2001 German film Mostly Martha. Part of the comic clash in the original film was between the German and Italian national temperaments, but screenwriter Carol Fuchs, working from Sandra Nettelbeck's original, and director Scott Hicks Hollywood-ize the story in predictable ways.
American movie stars are much prettier, of course, and they hesitate to play unpleasant characters. Zeta-Jones is suitably deglamorized but drains the plot of some of its conflict by being solemn—and not nearly prickly enough. Eckhart is charming but coasts on his ingratiating smile. The deepest emotions rest on the narrow shoulders of the marvelous Breslin, who energizes the sure-fire sentimentality of the orphaned child's plight.
The film gives us alluring glimpses of delectable food (and is a challenge for the hungry viewer), whether a scratch-made pizza, a pancake dusted with too much powdered sugar, or the scent of basil, truffles or kaffir lime leaves. The meticulous plating of each dish is ravishing, and even a tower of child-friendly fish sticks, nestled in a ring of french fries, looks good enough to eat.
No Reservations shows that there are still dramatic possibilities in the fancy kitchen, and the romance of the lead actors is believable. Still, I vote for Ratatouille's Remy as this summer's most convincing chef.