Iron-Hearted Chef

Abigail Breslin steals No Reservations from Catherine Zeta-Boring.

Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones in No Reservations

What exactly is the point of Catherine Zeta-Jones? Fine, she’s beautiful, but who isn’t in Hollywood these days? And sure, the whole married-to-Michael-Douglas thing provides a certain creepy May/December frisson. For all I know, Z-J may be a wonderful wife, a loving mother, and a great humanitarian, but watching clothes spin at the laundromat is more compelling than watching her on the big screen. Your average load of laundry boasts an array of colors and textures, and it occasionally moves in unexpected ways as you stare through the front-loader window. Z-J’s symmetrical face and lush body are so immobile she appears carved—she’s literally statuesque.

No Reservations(Warner Bros.), directed by Scott Hicks, is a nearly scene-by-scene remake of the 2001 German romantic comedy Mostly Martha, which deftly managed to skirt the sentimentality this movie wallows in. No plot involving the thawing of a woman’s icy heart by a sad little girl and a mischievously twinkling suitor is going to be entirely without sap. But the cast of Mostly Martha—like the extraordinary Abigail Breslin here—transcended the material to bring the predictable story a real spark.

Five years from now, this bland and forgettable throwaway will be remembered only for Breslin, who will by then be a poised and gifted 16-year-old actress (as long as she keeps out of Lohan-like trouble—please, Abby!). She acts circles around everyone in sight, and, in a cast that includes not only Laundry-Load Jones but Patricia Clarkson and Aaron Eckhart, that’s no small feat.

As the film opens, Kate Armstrong (Zeta-Jones), a perfectionist chef at a chic West Village restaurant, is boring the shit out of her therapist (Bob Balaban) with a lengthy disquisition on how to prepare quail. Kate then proceeds to bore the shit out of everyone else, especially the audience. She runs her kitchen like a boot camp, alienating employees and customers alike and driving the restaurant’s owner Paula (Clarkson) to distraction. In her spare time, Kate rebuffs the attentions of her kind downstairs neighbor (Brian F. O’Byrne). And the only way she can think to welcome her visiting sister and niece is to come home from a long day in the kitchen and cook them a fancy dinner.

But the sister dies in a car crash on the way to Kate’s apartment, and she suddenly finds herself the legal guardian of a grief-stricken 9-year-old named Zoe (Breslin). At Paula’s insistence, Kate takes a leave of absence, but she can’t get the hang of the mothering thing. She serves Zoe scary food (like fish with the head still on) and leaves her alone at home for long stretches. This was the moment when Kate lost my sympathy. It’s one thing to be a driven, Type A personality; it’s quite another to be so utterly devoid of warmth that you leave an orphaned child alone in a strange city. Who cares if this woman finds a boyfriend or not?

But this is a rom-com, so find one she will. During Kate’s absence, Paula has hired a new sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), whose Italian training Kate mysteriously scoffs at. (Since when do great chefs not respect Italian cooking?) Nick is an agreeable goofball with a Muppetlike shag and novelty-print cooking scrubs who loosens up the atmosphere in the kitchen and wins over the recalcitrant Zoe. Given that he’s played by Aaron Eckhart, you keep expecting Nick to reveal a hidden dark side, an edge—but it never happens. Beneath Nick’s nice-guy veneer is another, even nicer guy, who serves perfect tiramisu by firelight and passes up promotions when they might offend someone else. Eckhart without the danger just isn’t Eckhart—he played a similarly fangless romantic lead in Possession (2002) and has wisely remained wicked ever since.

But Abigail Breslin—wow. At 11 years old she’s as promising an actor as Jodie Foster was in Taxi Driver, though she replaces Foster’s toughness with a melting vulnerability. We know from Little Miss Sunshine that she can be funny; here, when she’s asked to leave for school without her lucky scarf, her stricken look is pure gold. But what puts Breslin in another league is her ability to show the multiple layers of Zoe’s grief—raw longing for her mother, fury at being stuck with her cold aunt, and the fake self-assurance of a child trying to protect herself from further harm. The delicacy of Breslin’s performance has the unintended effect of making this seem like a movie about a girl mourning her mother’s death, while some idiotic grown-ups run around in the foreground talking about food. By the end of the movie, she has the entire audience wanting to sue for legal custody.

It’s a bad break for No Reservations that it opens the same summer as Ratatouille, one of the best films ever about the drive to create great food (or the drive to create, period). Even the glossily filmed cuisine at the center of this movie is uninspiring. It looks tasty enough, but it doesn’t leave you wanting to rush to the market for fresh ingredients, as I did after watching the Pixar classic. “Sometimes, life isn’t made to order,” twinkles the tag line in this movie’s production notes. Yeah, and sometimes it’s served warmed over.