Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a top chef in New York City who lives alone in a cush-and-cozy apartment that feels nonetheless barren. Kate, who can't understand why men leave her when she refuses to further commit to two-year-long relationships, is content to live solo; it gives her more time on the job in a fancy brasserie's kitchen, which she rules with a cast-iron fist. Indeed, she's determined to have her pregnant sous chef give birth in between courses. When Kate's not cooking, she's kvetching to her shrink (Bob Balaban, making the most out of an inconsequential role), who gobbles her signature saffron sauce while listening to Kate pretend she doesn't have anger-management issues.
Of course, this perfectly unencumbered existence is thrown into chaos with the death of Kate's sister, who has willed to Kate her perfectly precocious nine-year-old niece, Zoe, played by Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin. At first, naturally, theirs is an uneasy relationship — relative stranger living with relative stranger, neither of whom wants the other around. Then Kate decides to start taking Zoe to the restaurant — where, after only a few days off to mourn, she discovers in her sacred space a new chef who's prone to cranking up the classical music and cracking up the troops during operatic sing-alongs. He's Nick, played by Aaron Eckhart, whose tousled bangs hang so low you're amazed he can see what he's cooking.
The restaurant's owner, played by Patricia Clarkson, wants Nick to take Kate's gig. All he wants is to know how she makes her most special and secret dish. The guy's so sweet, it's astounding he isn't shot in soft focus; Nick won't take Kate's gig, only everything else she's got — her heart and the kid, too, as Zoe takes a shine to Nick the moment he serves her pasta and red sauce instead of auntie's whole fish.
The cynic would like to write this off as empty grown-up hooey, Baby Boom without an ounce of bang. But you can't, because the thing's so charming and frothy and delightful and sentimental and beautifully shot and well-acted and sincere that it takes a good, long while before you start craving real nourishment, and during this disheartening season of overheated air-conditioned diversions, that passes for an unparalleled feat of artistic achievement.
And really, what better time to set a movie inside a kitchen, what with our foodie fetish more fervent than ever? No Reservations could have been made for the Food Network, starring Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay as the feuding chefs slow-roasting over a gas flame; or for Bravo, with Tom Colicchio and current GQ hot divorcée Padma Lakshmi; or for Fox, with Gordon Ramsay and whichever female Hell's Kitchen contestant he's berating now. Those Germans were just a few years ahead of the curve; good thing Hollywood's let the game come to it.
This is not at all intended as a backhanded compliment, but nothing much happens in No Reservations — no out-of-nowhere contrivances, no late-in-the-game plot twists, no will-they-or-won't-they tensions. You know how this meal will end before the appetizer's served. Director Scott Hicks (who, apparently tired of doling out heavy, mushy fare like Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars, is now content to serve up amuses-bouche) and the screenwriters — including Mostly Martha's writer-director, Sandra Nettelbeck — have done away with some of the meatier moments from the original. Zoe's less of a troubled child than her German counterpart, more timid than livid; Breslin is more sunset than Sunshine as the kid who resents her aunt for not being her mom but gets over it during a game of Monopoly.
The filmmakers have merely turned these characters' lives into fairy-tale fodder — which is what always happens in romantic melodramedies set in New York, never mind those set in kitchens. (Is it any coincidence that this opens the same summer as Ratatouille, which had but a single flaw — the romantic subplot?) In this particular story, the fantasy fogs up with the steam and smoke rising from boiling pots, sauté pans and two chefs thinking about getting their grill on.