In case you hadn't noticed, foodie-ism in America has hit an alarming all-time high. McDonald's sells lattes. You can have a dinner of raw fish with an Orange Julius chaser in most mall food courts. And on daytime TV, the cherubic chipmunk Rachael Ray is well on her way to becoming the next Oprah or at least a nonthreatening Martha. She's even managed to transform the not-at-all cumbersome phrase "extra-virgin olive oil" into an annoyingly popular acronym.
Never one to let a zeitgeist go unexploited, Hollywood has answered the call with not one but two foodie movies this summer: First the astute Pixar feature Ratatouille and now the gauzy romantic comedy No Reservations. Funny that the one featuring animated rats would have more depth and insight. Based on the 2002 German import Mostly Martha, the marginally better-titled but considerably more formulaic No Reservations is designed not to offend anyone's sensibilities: It's classy, handsomely lit and populated with beautiful people. But for all its trappings, the movie is about as substantial as a bag of low-fat Doritos.
For something that's supposed to be lighthearted escapist fun, director Scott Hicks traffics in moody, wintry details. The plot is set into motion by an unexpected death that leaves 9-year-old Zoe (Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin) in the care of her anal-retentive, master chef aunt, Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Kate lords over the stoves of her Greenwich Village eatery with the authority of a dictator, so when the impetuous, floppy-haired sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) is brought in to help, she's thrown off her game: He's all dimples and a Cheshire-cat grin, while she's nothing but a cold, hard, gleaming facade.
But Zeta-Jones, for all her strong suits, isn't exactly your go-to girl for closed-off, withdrawn characters. In No Reservations, she's hollowly serious when she should be deep, and brittle when she should be more of a perfectionist diva. Only in a slo-mo pillow fight with Breslin does she show signs of Zeta-Jones the movie star: That million-dollar smile, the mildly devious gleam in her eye. Conversely, Hicks knows he's got a ringer in Breslin, and he pushes the camera in on her tremulous little face whenever he wants to wring laughs or tears out of the audience. Luckily, she's natural enough to withstand the shameless attention; neither precocious nor creepily self-possessed (Dakota Fanning, anyone?), Breslin proves here that her Oscar nomination was no fluke.
Ultimately, No Reservations is only superficially interested in the sensual art of cooking; how else do you explain a kitchen where everyone has long, flowing manes and no one wears so much as a bandana to prevent their fly-aways from getting in the crème brûleé? Sure, the sea scallops and Kaffir lime leaves look great, and we get a couple of orgasmic reaction shots of snooty gourmands savoring their meals. But the film is trumped in the authenticity department by the countless reality/cook-off shows on TV, or rather, 90 percent of programming on the Food Network. However staged and coached they may be, the flamboyant real-life characters on Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef are at least deeply invested in the technique of preparing meals for paying customers.
They also do a better job of showing how the personality and background of a chef comes through in his or her creations. Zeta-Jones is shown donning a jaunty beret and heading down to the docks to pick up the freshest, most exotic ingredients, but we never learn much about her "signature saffron sauce," or for that matter, how she got to be one of New York City's most admired cooks. When No Reservations is at its worst, it resorts to lame aphorisms like "I wish there was a cookbook for life" to sketch in character detail, and pumps up the mambo music on the soundtrack to indicate "fun." As any foodie will tell you, even the fanciest presentation can't cover up the stink of bad ingredients.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.