[Screen It]

(2007) (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron, Eckhart) (PG)

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Romantic Dramedy: A work-obsessed chef must not only contend with a new addition to her kitchen who she fears might be after her job, but also the recent death of her sister that's left her as the sole caregiver for her young niece.
Kate Armstrong (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES) is a work-obsessed chef for a chic Manhattan restaurant who runs a tight kitchen and doesn't like it when customers dare complain about her cooking. That's led owner Paula (PATRICIA CLARKSON) to send her to a therapist (BOB BALABAN), but she and other kitchen workers such as Bernadette (LILY RABE) and the very pregnant Leah (JENNY WADE) know Kate will probably never change. After all, cooking and that restaurant are her life.

That is, until she receives the bad news that her sister was killed in an accident, thus leaving Kate as the sole caregiver for her young, grieving niece, Zoe (ABIGAIL BRESLIN). Unprepared to be a mom, she seeks help from her divorced downstairs neighbor, Sean (BRIAN F. O'BYRNE), but still finds herself frazzled from caring for the unhappy girl.

Things get worse when she returns from personal leave to discover that Paula has hired sous chef Nick Palmer (AARON ECKHART) to help out in the kitchen. Despite his easygoing ways and charm that have won over the rest of the staff, Kate is suspicious that he's after her job.

From that point on, she must not only contend with those feelings that start to migrate over to friendship and eventually romance, but also how to care for her recently orphaned niece.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to eating out, there are those who favor small, one-of-a-kind, local restaurants, and those who prefer to eat at national or at least regional chains. The former usually provide more of a unique taste of local flavorings and the desire to be something different from and hopefully better than more recognized, multi-location places. The downside, of course, is that independent culinary "surprises" can also be bad, ranging from unsavory concoctions to such establishments going under.

That's always possible, but far more unlikely with national chains whose strength -- for those looking for such things -- is the familiarity of the menu. You pretty much know what to expect when you sit down, but that lack of novelty or discovery is also their shortcoming. In a time when every part of the country is starting to look like every other part in terms of retail and restaurants, sometimes one longs for something completely different.

The same holds true in the world of movies, where foreign flicks (or at least just those that make it stateside) are like small, solely run restaurants, and Hollywood productions are more akin to national chains where you know what to order based on what you've seen before. Some viewers like familiarity, others prefer novelty, and while there's no right choice between them, the distinction is always present.

Such is the case with "No Reservations," a romantic dramedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart as star-crossed (or, to be more appropriate, ladle-crossed) workers at a small restaurant in Manhattan. It's an appealing offering filled with a pinch of comedy here, a dash of drama there, cooked at medium romantic heat until it rises into a reasonably entertaining dish.

The only problem is that we've had this offering before, back in 2002, when it was known as "Mostly Martha." That German dramedy featured Martina Gedeck and Sergio Castellitto as, shock of all shocks, similar characters who find themselves in a similar situation that, prepare yourself, pretty much plays out just like the events here.

Yes, this is another Hollywood remake of a foreign flick, and while most American viewers won't be aware of that lifting of the recipe, those who've seen the delightful original will obviously note the similarities. That not only pertains to the basic storyline, but also specific elements and seemingly even camera shots and angles (although it's been several years since the first film, so exact comparisons are pretty much mute, especially for the gray matter that's writing this after seeing some 1,500+ other movies in between these two).

True, there are some minute changes in smaller details, but even with that half-decade interval and only just one viewing of the original, I pretty much knew who'd show up when, where and how, and what would transpire at any given moment. Of course, even those who've never heard of "MM" might have the same reaction, as director Scott Hicks -- who works from a script by Carol Fuchs -- closely follows the standard formulaic recipe of such romantic dramedies in making this one.

That doesn't mean it's bad by any means, and it did grow on me as it proceeded, thanks to appealing if somewhat superficial characters and a feel good sauce poured over much of the offering. Accordingly, it's probably a good choice for those who prefer their movies ladled with heaping amounts of familiarity and thus comfort.

For those of us who've seen the original pic (and various others of its similar ilk), however, this one feels like the franchised version. All of the ingredients are present, and while they're tasty and/or effective to various degrees, they have a slight artificial and reproduced feel to them that all but eliminates any sort of novelty factor or related surprise.

While they don't always blend together as much as they should and/or viewers would like, Zeta-Jones and Eckhart are decent in their roles and demonstrating their characters' budding relationship. Abigail Breslin gets the far more difficult and complex part as the recently orphaned young girl whose entire life has been upended, and the young actress is solid in her performance. Patricia Clarkson, Brian F. O'Byrne and Bob Balaban are present as the cinematic equivalent of side dishes, and while they're decent, they're not as distinctive as those playing them the first time around.

Filled with more than its share of musical montages (the rest of the soundtrack comes courtesy of Philip "I'm Repetitive" Glass) and just about zero surprises for those who've seen the previous film or have never heard of it, the film at least benefits from being counter programming in this summer of big budget films for boys of all ages.

That advantage, however, will disappear when the film finally arrives in the home video cafeteria where it will blend in with other similar offerings to the point that it might just disappear. Moderately appealing and entertaining, although in a corporate chain fashion, "No Reservations" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 12, 2007 / Posted July 27, 2007

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