Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Hicks

Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O'Byrne

MPAA Rating:   (for some sensuality and language)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 7/27/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

A really strange opening credits moment comes when it's revealed that Philip Glass does the score for No Reservations. The thought instantly pops into mind: "Variations on a Romantic Comedy" by Philip Glass? It seems odd, because this movie is a straightforward, formulaic romantic comedy, right? From the trailers, we've seen this before, correct? Well, yes, one may have, as it's a remake of the 2001 German film Mostly Martha, but even if not because of the original, one feels a heavy sense of familiarity. That's what's surprising about the film. It's formulaic, yes, but it treats the formula as though it weren't formula, which goes back to Ebert's cardinal rule: "A movie is not what it's about, but how it is about it." Carol Fuch's screenplay (based on Sandra Nettelbeck's original script) has actual characters—not the deepest ones, mind you, but characters nonetheless—and director Scott Hicks has enough respect for those characters to present them as such and not tools for manufactured, manipulative sentimentality. The film goes through the motions of the genre, but we like these characters in spite of it. It deals with grief but avoids maudlin cloying; it's sweet without being saccharine.

We first hear Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a famed chef at a New York City restaurant, talking about preparing quail with the kind of sensuality usually saved for lovers. Her boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson) has ordered her to go to therapy, so she talks about food to avoid talking about her life with her therapist (Bob Balaban).. She's tough in the kitchen and skeptical about people. Example: When a customer insists his foie gras isn't cooked properly, she suggests he try the hot dog stand across the street. Her sister and niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) are on their way for a visit, but at work that night, she gets a call. Her sister is dead, and now she has responsibility over Zoe. Her boss tells Kate to take a week off, and despite trying to get accustomed to taking care of a child, she makes an unannounced stop to the restaurant during the week to discover there's a new sous-chef.. He's Nick Palmer (Aaron Eckhart), a huge fan of Kate's work, but once again, Kate's cynical about his intentions. Soon, Kate is back at work, taking Zoe along to make sure the girl has company and family.

No one in the film says this, but the audience knows it as much as the characters do. That's one of the film's primary strengths. It leaves matters like this unspoken but understood; it's above blunt scenes of emotional revelations. Even the therapist, who exists only to spout platitudes like, "The worst case scenario is that someone might be able to tolerate you for any given length of time," and give simple advice, is on the sidelines, only giving simple, generalized advice. Kate exists in a vacuum at the start of the film and slowly matter begins to seep in. She and Zoe can't communicate. Kate serves her niece dishes, like fish with the head still on, but she learns. Zoe doesn't want Kate to go to work without her. Of course it's not just because she doesn't want to be alone; she's afraid her aunt won't come back. Nick helps, preparing the grieving girl a dish of spaghetti and tricking her into eating it. Nick's charming and disarming, opening Kate's defenses. A romance, clearly, will develop, and even though it's a foregone conclusion based on that adage that opposites attract, it works because we know he's sincere. Kate just needs to figure that out for herself.

Hicks treats all of this with surprising restraint. Glass' melancholy score might seem out of place in a romantic comedy, but this film is more smoothly made and more familiar with how people behave and react when confronted with a situation like this. They worry about Child Protective Services coming in when the principal wonders why one of her students is saying she's working in a kitchen to pay for room and board, but they make the proper changes. They don't keep making the same mistake that leads to a courtroom scene and an emotionally charged speech about family being important. Kate and Zoe don't break down crying about their lost loved one and vow to be better to one another from now on, but they do sit in front of a home video with an almost haunted quality about it, united in mourning. Kate and Nick have a big fight, but it actually comes from traits we've gotten to know about them. Some of the script has cliché written all over it (the therapist, a pregnant waitress who will clearly give birth at some inopportune time, and a happy-go-lucky trio parading in the city set to a happy-go-lucky pop song), but the important elements don't feel tired.

I'm always surprised that when a film like this tries to be different, the marketing campaign immediately attempts to throw it back in with the rest of the pack. The packaging of No Reservations might look familiar, but the contents are warm, genuine, and a pleasant surprise.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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