'No Reservations' goes to the heart, via the kitchen

The subtext of the film directed by Scott Hicks, is that there is no cookbook for life. (At least not yet.)

In "No Reservations," Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a loveless single woman who lives in a spacious New York apartment and devises culinary masterpieces for an upscale Greenwich Village eatery. I have no problem believing the apartment and the profession, but casting Zeta-Jones as loveless is a bit of a stretch.

The ostensible reason for Kate's aloneness is her manic commitment to her job. She runs her kitchen like a drill sergeant and when a patron dares question, say, the pinkness of her steak tartare, she practically bounces him onto the sidewalk. Each dawn she's at the fish market to beat her competitors to the freshest catch.

Kate, in other words, is just the kind of workaholic whose clock needs to be wound down. And soon enough the predictable complications ensue. Her 9-year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) comes to live with her after her mother is killed in a car accident. Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a newly hired, opera-loving sous-chef, shakes things up in the kitchen and is smitten by more than Kate's culinary confections.

Kate doesn't have a clue how to deal with a 9-year-old. Her psychiatrist (an extra dry Bob Balaban) sensibly suggests making the finicky girl fish sticks for dinner instead of foie gras. It's that kind of movie.

Adapted from the 2002 German film "Mostly Martha," "No Reservations" is diverting because of all the gleaming food on display. For those of us who can't stand the heat and so stay out of the kitchen, the intricate preparation of quail with truffle sauce is a wonder to behold.

None of these culinary divertissements may surprise couch gourmands addicted to the Food Network but they go a long way in spicing up a schematic romantic comedy.

Nick has to woo Kate with his cooking because that's the only way he can reach out to her. Even though she's suspicious of his ambitions, he's so aggressively likeable, and such a good chef, that it's only a matter of time before she doffs her toque for him.

Zeta-Jones plays a flinty control freak a bit longer than necessary, but when she finally succumbs, she's believably needy. And her relationship with her niece isn't quite as icky as one fears: Zoe is almost as prickly as Kate, which blessedly lowers the cuddle quotient.

The on-off chemistry between Zeta-Jones and Eckhart is more problematic. Eckhart is so well known for playing smarmy types ("In the Company of Men," "Thank You For Smoking"), that it takes more than half the movie to figure out that, yes, he's really a nice guy. He's not going to take a blow torch to Kate, just her crème brûlée.

But Eckhart might have been better off if his role had a bit more malice. Because it's a given that Nick plans no sneak attack on Kate, or her job, Eckhart is stuck playing the good Samaritan. He even gets Zoe to drop her guard. And how does he do this? With his personal recipe for spaghetti – I mean, pasta.

The subtext of "No Reservations," which was directed by Scott Hicks, is that there is no cookbook for life. (At least not yet). These master chefs are only masters of their tiny domain. Outside in the real world, they are just as messed up as the rest of us.

This is a rather mild conceit for a comedy. Since when are chefs supposed to be masters of the universe? You'd have to be pretty hungry to believe that. But at least the food on view in No Reservations is the real stuff, not plastic. See it after you've eaten dinner. And don't see if you've recently been to Ratatouille. Grade: B

• "No Reservations" is Rated PG for some sensuality and language.

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