In the poster for the new Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle, "No Reservations," the actress and her charismatic costar Aaron Eckhart are shown standing hip to hip in a restaurant kitchen, stirring up something saucy while flashing their dazzling smiles at each other. Anybody tempted by this image to go see the film would be advised to spend an evening with the promotional materials instead, because Zeta-Jones' sparkling chompers aren't much in evidence in the theater.
In their stead we get Exhibits H through P in the ongoing case against Professional Lady, whose talent and success can only exist in inverse proportion to her personal happiness. Eventually, she'll find out what life is all about, but only after a man and child forcibly enter her life.
Directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine") and written by Carol Fuchs, "No Reservations" (no relation, incidentally, to the Anthony Bourdain show) is based on the considerably more charming German film "Mostly Martha," in which a German chef spars with, then falls for, an Italian sous-chef while coping with caring for her young niece, whose mother has been killed in a car accident. The American remake gives us Zeta-Jones as the angry professional lady, a top chef so compactly repressed that when she squeezes out a tear after her sister is killed it looks like she's just extruding moisture; Eckhart as the exuberant epicure who reintroduces her to her senses in both senses of the word; and Abigail Breslin as the adorable child who brings them together.
Among the movie's chief flaws is that Zeta-Jones is entirely unconvincing as a chef, an American and a human being. Whether she's storming out of the kitchen to attack customers who send back her food, regaling her exposition-enabling but otherwise pointless therapist (Bob Balaban) with disquisitions on food preparation and elaborately prepared meals, or serving her young niece a nice dinner of roasted fish with the head still attached, she seems awkward, Welsh and robotic.
When the baby-sitting agency sends over a chain-smoking goth chick with a nose ring and a bad attitude, for instance, Kate shrugs and leaves the apartment. When the baby-sitter leaves the kid alone before Kate returns from work, she barely bats an eye. If, at this point in the story, we were to learn that her skin rolls back to reveal green scales, her character's credibility would increase exponentially. As it is, "E.T." seems to have had a far firmer grip on our terrestrial ways than Kate does.
When Kate's sous-chef Leah (Jenny Wade) goes on maternity leave, restaurant owner Paula (Patricia Clarkson) is forced to hire a replacement without Kate's approval. She brings in Nick (Eckhart), an Italian chef with stellar credentials that mean nothing to Kate. The man is unforgivably ebullient -- he blasts "Turandot" and makes jokes in the kitchen, and she hates him on sight.
Sooner or later, we know, the polar cap that is Kate's heart must begin its inevitable thaw, and Nick's attentions are just the gassy emissions required to kick off the melting process. But Zeta-Jones' strangely hemmed-in performance, not to mention her utter lack of chemistry with Eckhart (or Breslin, for that matter) and inability to infuse a line like "I was so afraid that something had happened to you" with even a scrap of the sense that she gives a rat's fig, make watching it happen pretty joyless.
"No Reservations" is one of those movies that presents life precisely and meticulously as it isn't, presumably as some kind of consolation for how it really is. With its simplistic compartmentalization of dueling personality types, kindergarten view of grown-up love, exquisite styling, overripe camera moves and lousy, overwrought score, the movie feels stubbornly, resolutely disingenuous and one-dimensional. Everything in it is designed to make you feel better, so why does it feel artificial and palliative in that really depressing way?
"No Reservations." MPAA rating: PG for some sensuality and language. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In wide release.