There’s much that’s familiar about No Reservations: a perennially single urban professional winds up parenting her young niece, which — along with a meddling, free-spirited co-worker — helps the driven, emotionally constipated career woman finds ways to relax and open up. But the film, directed by A-lister Scott Hicks (Shine, Hearts in Atlantis), positively glows — sweet, understated, never too cloying, it has a light touch with metaphors and a charm that formula can’t keep down. Though word of mouth may scare off people rightfully wary of movies described as “cute,” No Reservations isn’t actually “cute” in the way I think of the term. Instead it’s heartfelt, and actually kind of moving.
First, No Reservations frets about the details. Not just the physical details, like the nuts and bolts of the superstar chef protagonist’s kitchen — though it cares about those too — but the character nuances that take careful screenwriting and actors that are up to the task. Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) talks about food and cooking not with the pride of a master but with an awed, almost mournful reverence that belies her aggressiveness in the kitchen. Her bearing and attitude hint at a depth her co-workers, who mostly see her in perfectionist diva mode, can’t appreciate, and we get hints that her professional persona is a defense mechanism. I liked the way every employee of “52 Bleeker” seems to use the walk-in refrigerator as a sort of emotional decompression chamber.
Kate is so strangely compelling that I began to dread the inevitability of her being saddled with The Kid. But it helps that The Kid is played here by Abigail Breslin, who at the age of 11 has already managed to score an Oscar nomination, and no wonder: into a part that all but demands insufferable precociousness, she injects instead a heartbreaking directness. The screenwriting helps — her first words upon waking up in the hospital after a car wreck are “Where’s mom? Is she dead? She is, isn’t she?” — but it’s Breslin’s level stare and light-up-the-world smile that seal the deal. Together, she and Zeta-Jones squeeze so much out of so little; it’s genuinely gratifying to watch young Zoe bring the best out in Kate.
Working in a genre in which movies have a tendency to run away from well-meaning directors and turn into blubbering emotional puddles, Hicks keeps an admirably tight rein on the proceedings. He knows not to overplay his hand: there’s a crucial scene in which Aaron Eckhart’s Nick — Kate’s rebelious sous chef — bonds with Zoe over a bowl of pasta, and it winds up just right, subtle and funny without trying too hard to be a big, epiphanic Movie Moment. Much is made of a co-worker’s pregnancy, but Hicks skips over the birth entirely — her water breaks, there’s talk of a hospital, and the film cuts to Kate coming home to realize that she forgot Zoe at school. Even the moment from the trailer I was dreading — Bob Balaban (as Kate’s therapist, natch) intoning that “the best recipes are the ones you create yourself” — isn’t the preachy, bat-to-the-head moment I had expected. Here’s a romantic comedy that knows how to take it easy on its emotional beats.
By the time No Reservation gets to its unabashedly uplifting, sentimental ending, then, it feels earned and right. Even the last shot, which is frankly rather shameless, hits the spot. The movie is proof that this brand of crowdpleaser need not be syrupy and obnoxious, and that familiarity doesn’t necessarily equal triteness. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s just careful and perfectly calibrated.