Conventional wisdom states that remaking a movie, any movie, is an exercise in futility. Rarely does an adaptation of an existing film add anything new to an original’s rhythm or narrative melody. But that’s not the case with director Scott Hicks’ (Shine) Americanized calibration of writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck’s winning 2002 German romance dramedy Mostly Martha.
Screenwriter Carol Fuchs makes precise revisions that put an understated focus on a budding romance between master chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Nick (Aaron Eckhart), the new sous chef in her busy kitchen at a West Village, Manhattan eatery. Eckhart and Zeta-Jones enjoy an authentic chemistry that only gets brightened by the ineffable charms of Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) as Zoe, Kate’s nine-year-old niece.
Fussy chefs have long been a character archetype in movies, and the idea of a female gourmet who compromises her personal life in order to stay at the height of her cooking game is captivating. Zeta-Jones’ Kate talks exclusively about food with her therapist (Bob Balaban) in his penthouse office. She describes cooking a “Love Birds” romance dinner, consisting of roasted quail, with such passion that her description turns poetic. It hints at why Kate’s restaurant boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson) sent Kate to therapy in the first place.
Anyone who has seen Mostly Martha knows when we meet Zoe, riding in a car with her mother, that she is doomed to become an orphan with only Kate available to take over as her guardian. Kate doesn’t wear much make-up, but she does cook every meal as if she were vying for a cooking award. A fish plate with the head and body intact is enough to turn Zoe off from eating anything Kate prepares. To say that Kate doesn’t understand a child’s needs is an astronomical understatement considering that the chef de cuisine doesn’t begin to grasp her own emotional insecurities.
Confrontations with guests at the restaurant, over things like the rareness of a piece of beef, have caused the owner to hire Nick, as an assistant chef to augment Kate’s less-than-cheerful kitchen. The humorous grist of the movie comes from Kate and Nick’s interaction as polar yet complementing opposites.
Watching Nick’s perfectly obeisant behavior toward Kate chip away her brittle exterior is gratifying for the gentle way he also introduces food that Zoe will eat into the equation. Nick plays opera on his boombox in the kitchen, and his singing invigorates the kitchen staff as much as it irritates the head chef. These are three likable characters that deserve a better quality of communication, and the drama springs from their impatient personalities that conspire to flee at any given moment.
On the surface, No Reservations is a tragedy-spiked romantic comedy where the audience always knows exactly where the story is going. What we don’t see coming is the undertow of emotional urgency that Kate, Nick and Zoe gradually embrace with a sense of kindness that breathes space for the mysterious connection of family to take hold.
As a director, Scott Hicks knows how to stay out of the way of the story and of his actors. For all of the zesty food that’s cooked, it’s the organic quality of the performances that evoke just the right amount of tenderness without any aftertaste of sentimentality. The texture is just right.EMTW