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Friday, July 27, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"No Reservations" has pretty good flavor, especially for leftovers

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"No Reservations," with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O'Byrne. Directed by Scott Hicks, from a screenplay by Carol Fuchs, based on the screenplay "Mostly Martha" by Sandra Nettelbeck.

104 minutes. Rated PG for some sensuality and language.

"No Reservations," Scott Hicks' pleasant if unremarkable American remake of Sandra Nettelbeck's lovely 2002 German film "Mostly Martha," is one of those movies you don't want to attend hungry. Two of its main characters are chefs, and much of the action takes place at an elegant downtown Manhattan eatery where scallops sear, steaks sizzle and desserts are assembled with the loving attention of an artist perfecting a sculpture. Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a brilliant chef who ties her apron with the same taut precision she brings to her culinary techniques, runs the kitchen with a firm hand. Her life? Not so much.

Kate lives for her work, ignoring the tentative offers of friendship (or more) from her sweet downstairs neighbor (Brian F. O'Byrne), coming home late at night to an answering machine with no messages. But this familiar rhythm is shaken by two unexpected arrivals. Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a laid-back sous chef who joins her staff and likes to cavort unshavenly around the kitchen to the strains of Italian opera. And Zoe (Abigail Breslin, of "Little Miss Sunshine"), Kate's 9-year-old niece, who comes to live with her aunt after her mother's death in a car accident. Despondent, she won't eat the elaborate meals well-meaning Kate prepares for her; she's remembering a different kind of warmth from a kitchen.

So here you have it — a heaping serving of warmed-over themes: uptight woman meets looser man, childless person has life changed by sudden arrival of child, wide-eyed child faces tragedy and must find happiness again, food as metaphor for love. What was so pleasing about "Mostly Martha" was the way it took familiar territory and made it new. Martha (the Kate character in the German film) wasn't lovable, her niece wasn't cute and their gradual warming to each other felt winning and real.

"Mostly Martha" transforms into "No Reservations" with few changes and most of its flinty charm intact. Zeta-Jones, her usual glamour taken down a notch (a tiny notch, mind you — those kitchen whites are very form-fitting), carefully hides Kate's warm heart. Eckhart, though he's saddled with one of those too-good-to-be-true roles, is appealing, as is O'Bryne, whose character gets short shrift. And Breslin is already a fine, focused actor with a wistful gift for looking utterly lost; there are moments when Zoe's plight feels genuinely heartbreaking.

Carol Fuchs' screenplay too often goes for the obvious, reluctant to let us discover the film's lessons for ourselves. ("I wish there was a cookbook for life," says Kate near the end. "It's the recipes you create yourself that are the best," replies her therapist. Oh.) But the cast makes the film a warm and agreeable experience, and the food may well send you from the multiplex to the kitchen in an attempt to sauté a little perfection of your own.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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