The recipe for a romantic comedy has remained essentially unchanged since the days of silent movies. Chaplin was doing the same routine in 1925: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl don't know they're in love, while the audience recognizes their affection for each other immediately. Boy and girl suffer much conflict and contention during the story. Then, just before fade-out, boy and girl finally acknowledge their love. If the film does it well, the audience should leave happy and/or teary eyed. Of course, no decent restaurant would serve only one dish, and no romantic comedy would follow any one recipe. So, every romantic comedy has to have a gimmick. In the case of 2007's "No Reservations," it's a rather tortured variation on the theme. And food. Fine food, a la "Ratatouille," another entrée in a year of food-related pictures. However, if I had to choose one or the other menu item, I'd definitely go with "Ratatouille." I found it a lot more appetizing than the prosaic ingredients in "No Reservations."
Now, here's the thing: The studio did seem to advertise "No Reservations" as a romantic comedy. At least, that's the distinct impression I got from seeing the trailer a half a dozen times leading up to the movie's release. But I don't think anybody told the filmmakers that--not director Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Hearts in Atlantis") and not screenwriter Carol Fuchs, who based her script on German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck's 2001 film "Mostly Martha." They all seemed to think they were doing a mostly straight dramatic piece, an old-fashioned romance filled not only with a few lighthearted moments but much soapy, semi-tragic melodrama. Yet the filmmakers still follow the formula for a traditional romantic-comedy. I don't know what they intended, but what they got was something of a muddle, a presumptive confectionary dessert turned to a soggy puddle on the bottom of the plate.
Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Kate Armstrong, a single, compulsive, uptight, workaholic chef, running the kitchen in an upscale New York City restaurant. She's very, very good at her job, which is food, and her job is her life, so much so that she is not above insulting customers who don't like her culinary creations. Kate's boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), insists she see a therapist (Bob Balaban) every week, but for the life of her, Kate cannot understand why she needs it. She's seriously blind to her own faults.
Now, you'd think that in a conventional romantic film, a handsome, happy-go-lucky gentleman would come along to turn Kate's life around and show her how to enjoy the world. And you'd be right, almost. You see, it takes the movie a good deal of its running time to get around to the topic. Instead, it spends the first forty minutes or so in doom and gloom. Within minutes of the opening titles, the film shows us what a miserable and unlikable person Kate is, and then it subjects us to the death of Kate's sister in an automobile accident. Not only that, but Kate's young niece (Abigail Breslin), the divorced sister's daughter, also gets hurt in the accident, and she's left without parents. Kate has the unpleasant task of telling the little girl when she wakes up from her injuries that her mother is dead, and that Kate will be taking care of her from now on.
A disagreeable main character and a death in the family do not exactly make for a promising start for a movie that purports to be either a romantic comedy or a seriocomic romance. What in the world were the scriptwriters thinking of? They wanted to get a little girl into the main character's life--fair enough--but they couldn't think of any other way to do it than by having a loved one die? I mean, come on. This is fiction. The writers could have made up any kind of story to get Kate and the niece together, yet they give us this? Basically, the movie begins as a tragedy and never fully recovers.
Anyway, the handsome, happy-go-lucky gentleman is Nick Palmer, played by Aaron Eckhart. Kate's boss hires him as the restaurant's temporary sous chef, a second in command in the kitchen. You can guess the consequences. Like Kate, he is also a very, very good cook, and she feels immediately threatened by him. It doesn't help that he's outgoing, joyous, opera-loving, and not a little irresponsible. He is, in fact, the opposite of Kate, and everyone loves him except Kate. She not only mistrusts him, she seems to positively hate him, thinking he's out to take over her kitchen. She's not just unkind towards him, she's downright rude, and for reasons unknown to anybody but the scriptwriters, Nick endures these indignities far longer than any normal person might. Then he throws a bit of a tantrum of his own and insists that Kate accept him in the kitchen or he will leave, and he does so in front of the whole staff and the restaurant owner. So Mr. Nice Guy winds up almost as unsympathetic as Kate.
Zeta-Jones and Eckhart do what they can with their characters, which isn't much. Worse, they don't seem to show the audience any attraction for one another. Abigail Breslin, of "Little Miss Sunshine" fame, does her part by at least not being too precious or cutesy, but her character is something of a pill, even if she did just lose her mother. Bob Balaban plays the usual unshakable, half-exasperated, half-snobbish character that threatens to typecast him forever. And the film mostly wastes the talents of Patricia Clarkson on a role that provides her with virtually nothing to do.
There are few laughs or smiles in "No Reservations" and little joy. In other words, there's not much sparkle in the movie and even less spark to the love story. If you're looking for chemistry here, you're in the wrong room. This is more like gym class with two opponents battling one another most of the time. In the movie's second half, food and little Miss Breslin come to the rescue, but by this time it's almost too late for the audience to notice.
"No Reservations" is not an entirely awful movie; it's just a dull one that can't make up its mind if it wants to be a romantic comedy, an outright comedy, a warmhearted romance, a drama, a melodrama, or some kind of slice of life. If it doesn't know what it is, how does it expect its audience to know? Or care?
In a change of pace for Warner Bros., they present the film in two aspect ratios, the original 2.40:1 widescreen seen in theaters and a full-screen pan-and-scan that omits nearly half the image to the left and right of each frame. Since they offer both of these formats on the same side of the DVD, you can guess that something had to suffer, and it appears to have been the bit rate. Although WB have been using a high bit rate on most of their releases for the past few years, they obviously didn't have space for anything more than an average bit rate this time out. The results show up in the transfer's slightly fuzzy definition, compensated for by fairly bright, natural colors (except in some facial tones, which come up a bit too dark). The anamorphic transfer is free of dirt or artifacts, with only a light, modest print grain in evidence. I have no complaints about the video quality, actually, although the picture never jumps off the screen or impresses one in any particular way.
There is hardly anything to say good or bad about the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction because there is hardly anything the film calls upon it to do. It's quiet. The film is mainly dialogue, with a little background music, mostly classical but never too prominent. There is the barest touch of musical ambience enhancement in the rear channels. Otherwise, the sound is clean and well balanced, but, like the movie, innocuous.
The only bonus item of consequence is a twenty-minute episode of the Food Network's "Unwrapped," with host Marc Summers interviewing the stars of "No Reservations" and the real chefs who created the movie's meals. Other than that, there are a few WB trailers at start-up only;
twenty-four scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The major saving graces in "No Reservations" are the occasional Puccini, Verdi, and Flotow musical excerpts that play in the background and the movie's overall sincerity. Its weaknesses are its blandness and its indecisive tone. On balance, no one wins or loses, making "No Reservations" at best a fairly ordinary entry in the romantic or romantic-comedy or seriocomic movie genres, take your choice. Personally, I didn't find it romantic, I didn't find it funny, and I didn't find it dramatic, so my rating for its film value suffers accordingly.