If you’ve seen the commercials and trailers for “No Reservations,” you’re probably anticipating a glossy, goofy romance between a tightly-wound head chef named Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her new sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a rugged blond life force. Faithfully adapted from the German filmmaker Sandra Nettelbeck’s 2001 feature “Mostly Martha,” the movie provides these stock elements and many others, including a wisecracking preteenage girl (Abigail Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine”), lyrical montages and too-cute therapy scenes (with Bob Balaban as the shrink) that play like unsubtle attempts to fill in the taciturn heroine’s past.
What’s unexpected and gratifying, though, is the film’s enlightened attitude toward parenthood and work, which the movie’s publicity campaign conspicuously glosses over, even though it’s the story’s driving force.
Ms. Breslin’s character, Zoe, is Kate’s smart, tough, 9-year-old niece, whose mother — Kate’s sister — dies in a car wreck. Kate, who has indefinitely deferred marriage and children to pursue her career and rarely regrets the decision, is torn between the necessity of maintaining her workaholic lifestyle and her obligation to raise Zoe, whose father skedaddled before she was born.
Modern Hollywood movies often genuflect toward feminism while implying that a woman isn’t truly a woman until she has gratefully surrendered to motherhood. While watching “No Reservations” you keep waiting for the other high-heeled shoe to drop, but it never really does. The director, Scott Hicks (“Shine”), and the screenwriter, Carol Fuchs, respect Kate’s ambition, skill and drive. Throughout, they imply that Kate’s biggest hurdle isn’t a lack of aptitude for motherhood but her credulous acceptance of society’s one-size-fits-all definition of good parents.
It isn’t easy for Kate to process her sister’s death — she returns to work too quickly, and won’t take time off until her boss (Patricia Clarkson) orders it — and the challenge of mothering Zoe is even more daunting. Yet the film dares to present Kate’s stumblebum early efforts — subcontracting child care to a chain-smoking goth babysitter, then to a flirty single-dad neighbor (a charming and woefully underused Brian F. O’Byrne) — as proof not that she needs to quit her job, but that she’s fallen for the false dichotomy of work versus parenting.
Kate’s professional, domestic and romantic lives begin to merge satisfyingly when she invites Zoe to hang out in the restaurant’s kitchen. When Kate finally warms up to her subordinate and potential rival, Nick — who was hired by Paula while Kate was off grieving for her sister — it’s because Nick demonstrates an effortless ability to relate to Zoe while never losing touch with his defining identity as a chef.
Nick’s middle-class rebel persona is a tad precious. He blasts opera while directing the kitchen staff and boasts that he never went to cooking school but learned the basics in a rural Italian restaurant he encountered while backpacking across Europe.
At the same time, though, his boyish exuberance marks him as a potentially great dad, and his “Song of Myself” confidence makes him oblivious to the doubts that plague Kate. Nick sees nothing wrong with building his relationship with Zoe around the fine art of cooking. His instinctive tendency to overlap work and parenthood gives Kate permission to do the same.
Make no mistake: “No Reservations” is a factory-sealed romantic comedy. It embraces dark emotions in early scenes showing Kate and Zoe’s grief, then moves on quickly, perhaps out of fear that viewers will deem it a downer. There’s never any doubt that Nick has Kate and Zoe’s best interests at heart, or that they all will find happiness on its own sweet terms.
But the emotional details of Kate, Nick and Zoe’s journey are surprising, honest and life-size, and the film’s determination to present their predicament sympathetically, without appealing to retrograde ideals of femininity and motherhood, makes it notable, and in some ways unique.
“No Reservations” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for some sensuality and language.