Do the ingredients have to be fresh for a meal to taste good? In haute cuisine, yes; in movies, not so much. "No Reservations," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a persnickety New York chef, makes a corned beef hash out of "Mostly Martha," the much-loved 2001 German film from which it has been Hollywoodized. Nor is there anything here you haven't seen in umpteen other romantic comedies, with or without the saffron sauce.
So cynics, restaurant critics, and lovers of foreign-language originals need not apply. Date-night guys will be left craving hamburger, too. The movie's pleasant and light, though, and its emotional crises are the crust on an acceptably edible crème brulee. The most appreciative audience will probably be moms towing young teenage girls whose foodie tastebuds have been awakened by "Ratatouille." And that's fine; let them chow down.
Zeta-Jones plays Kate Armstrong, the tightly wound star chef at a chic Greenwich Village restaurant. "Life is unpredictable," says her therapist (Bob Balaban, wearing an odd blond frizz), to which Kate snorts, "Not in my kitchen." In case you didn't get that the character's an emotional iceberg, she regularly retreats to the restaurant's walk-in freezer for downtime.
Two developments bring about a thaw. Kate's sister (Arija Bareikis) dies in a car accident, leaving a tweenage daughter named Zoe (Abigail Breslin) in the heroine's unprepared care. While she's out coping, restaurant owner Patricia Clarkson (acerbic and slender as a champagne flute) hires a sous chef to run the kitchen. He is Nick Palmer (Aaron Eckhart), a stubbled surfer dude who likes to blast opera while he works. Kate's tocque visibly stiffens at their first meeting.
Nick's the perfect man, of course -- no chick flick is without one -- so Kate's resistance becomes the stuff of cute comedy. (The rocky relationship with Zoe is there to remind us life can be serious, too.) Some of Scott Hicks's filmmaking ideas are shockingly unoriginal (a frolic-in-the-city montage, compete with photo booth outtakes? In 2007?) and screenwriter Carol Fuchs's dialogue has the unfortunate habit of reviewing itself. Lines like "There's no greater sin than to overcook a quail" and "I can't help it if your reduction is a little thin" reflect too uneasily on the dangers of remaking art-house fare for mass consumption.
The script also has no real idea what to do with the character of Zoe, supposedly 11 but written as if she's much younger. Breslin, so natural in "Little Miss Sunshine," never finds a way into the role and remains stuck in neutral, watching the grown-ups from the sidelines. That's easy enough to do: Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are both incredibly attractive, and they're both pros, so Kate and Nick's courtship rituals are as tasty to witness as they're calorie-free.
Where "No Reservations" mostly clicks is in its depiction of a fairy-tale West Village, gritty but benign and pocked with eccentric ethnic types bearing truffles and golden tilefish to the circular trills of Philip Glass's score. The hectic camaraderie of Kate's work environment is conveyed well, too, with tart performances by Jenny Wade as a pregnant assistant chef and Lily Rabe (Jill Clayburgh's daughter) as an erotically inclined waitress. Why she and Nick aren't rutting in the cabbages out back is something of a mystery.
Those scenes lack the edge of a real restaurant, though -- the sense that a well-functioning kitchen is always one overseared scallop away from total disaster. Despite the tears and kisses and arias bursting forth on the soundtrack, "No Reservations" remains as decorous as a magazine spread. No eggs get broken, all the soufflés rise on time, and no one ever has to do the dishes.