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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

NO RESERVATIONS (article first published : 2007-09-24)

Take a winning recipe, sprinkle in some choice ingredients with a distinctly Hollywood flavour and – voila! – superior dish, no?

Well, no, as this Hollywood reheating of the widely acclaimed 2001 German film, Mostly Martha, emerges as an altogether lighter, less delicious soufflé.

The focus moves away from the original’s exquisitely symbolic use of food and the careful preparation of it - all of which was its biggest plus - to instead lip-smack at culinary creations, but with the focus set more sharply on the characters.

That said, No Reservations, served by an attractive cast and the capable Scott Hicks, who gave us the Oscar-winning Shine, is not half as bad as many reviews have suggested. It certainly had my wife wiping at tears more than once and proclaiming it an ideal chick flick.

The story is that of Kate, something of a cold-hearted, no-nonsense loner, a top Manhattan chef specialising in French cuisine, played by the ever-lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. Kate’s life revolves around her kitchen and she is such a stubborn perfectionist, so long at the top of her game, that when people complain she is happy to confront them about it – and in no uncertain terms.

All of which doesn’t exactly thrill Paula (Patricia Clarkson), the owner of the upmarket restaurant where she is employed as executive chef.

But then Kate’s life takes a nasty and sudden turn – her sister dies in a car accident and she takes over the care of her young niece, Zoë (Little Miss Sunshine Oscar-nominee Abigail Breslin), with whom she struggles to bond.

There is another big disruption to Kate’s carefully scheduled life – Paula signs up a new sous-chef without her knowing. He’s the overqualified, opera-loving, free-spirited and flamboyant Nick (Aaron Eckhart), whom Kate sees as a threat but who claims to have taken the job for the honour of working alongside her. How Kate grapples with all this heat in her kitchen, and battles to juggle the new ingredients of her life, fill the bulk of the film’s nearly-two-hour running time.

Slowly, but surely, the tight-lipped dullard sees the error of her ways and starts to lighten up. She is helped by the slowly recovering Zoë warming to her and her new surroundings, some lighthearted therapy sessions with her psychologist (Bob Balaban) and the optimistic Nick spreading his exuberance.

And, yes, inevitably, romance starts to boil.

The chemistry between Zeta-Jones, otherwise good in the role, and the always likeable Eckhart is sometimes a little forced, too contrived, but No Reservations, for all its clichés, is a warm and palatable enough serving to make for a tasty matinee snack. Rating: 6/10. - Billy Suter




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