I’ve been thinking about food a lot (like this is news?) because I’m developing a TV series for my friend Mark Dacascos who plays “The Chairman” on Iron Chef America. His current show turns gourmet cooking into a gladiator sport, and that reminds me of a couple films dedicated to the behind-the-scenes clashes in the kitchens of high-end restaurants. No Reservations is an almost scene-by-scene American re-make of the German film, Mostly Martha. Both tell the story of a woman chef at a top restaurant who has life plans rocked by the arrival of a child in her home after the death of a sister, complicated by the simultaneous hiring of a male chef at work who, at first, she sees as a challenge to her authority and later as a lover and a friend.
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Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs her kitchen with rapid precision, intimidating her co-workers, and necessitating therapy to keep it together. When her sister is killed in a car accident, she becomes the guardian of her nine-year old daughter Zoe (Abigail Breslin), and suddenly, life does not revolve around the kitchen anymore, no matter how much she wishes it did. Nick (Aaron Eckhart) joins the cooking staff as a rising star who could be the head chef of another restaurant, but wants to work under Kate. They are competitive, but ultimately they realize they need each other. Love blooms, and a new family is born. People differ on whether Zeta-Jones and Eckhart have any magic together, but one thing is certain: Abigail Breslin is great again, stealing this movie the way she did Little Miss Sunshine. She provides the true, authentic heart of this version, and everybody else feels like support to her lead.
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The Defending Champion
Again, Mostly Martha is the original story that No Reservations follows very, very closely until, literally, the end, which was changed for the re-make. The names have been changed, too: in the German film it’s Martha, the chef, who inherits Lina, the niece, and falls in love with Mario, an Italian. After visiting Germany last year, my wife and I put some German films on our Netflix queue, and this one surprised us both when we saw it. We had no expectations at all. Yet, by the end, we didn’t even notice the subtitles, we were so into it as a film. Its rhythms felt very unscripted, unfolding at their own pace and not according to a some screenwriter’s guide to romantic comedy. There is a lot that is unclear in this film that can’t be blamed on linguistics, but it still feels honest and the acting seems to fill those gaps nicely in your brain as you watch it. You don’t finish it with questions but with a nice, satisfying answer.
The conflict in the kitchen is much more clearly defined in Mostly Martha, simply by virtue of nationality. Martha, being German, is easily perceived as the embodiment of Teutonic precision, while Mario, being Italian, comes across with that wonderful Italian casualness. In this regard, it feels more authentic.
Since I had no idea who the stars in Mostly Martha were, it was much easier to accept them as real people. Also, take a look at Mario in the picture above. He is as imperfect looking a human as you could cast in a film and an incredibly stark contrast to the rock-solid handsome Aaron Eckhardt. Since both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Martina Gedeck are beautiful women, that was a toss-up, but again, it’s clear that one is a movie star playing a part. Zeta-Jones’s credits are with you in ever frame, even though she does look awesome in her perfectly tailored kitchen whites.
No Reservations is not some bloodless piece of filmmaking at all, but a competent story reasonably well-told. Do Zeta-Jones or Eckhardt look at all comfortable in a kitchen? Well, yes, sometimes. But there are moments when they look slightly less comfortable with each other. Chemistry is important with food and with romantic comedy. Gedeck and Castellitto, in their film, make you believe they are damaged goods who might possibly prove that the whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of the parts.
There is no doubt, however, that the distinction of best actress in the role of the sad little girl goes to Abigail Breslin. She is the new Dakota Fanning.
Besides the surface gloss of No Reservations, the biggest difference in the films is the ending. The European version took a sudden left turn at the end which gave it a feeling of surprise, like life. But in the hands of the Americans, the surprise was thrown out in favor of a cutesy, everything worked out wonderfully ever after ending that renders everything before it as a simple progression toward the inevitable.
Let’s see if we can cook up a decision here…
It’s the casting, pure and simple. With Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhardt, it’s a Major Star Vehicle designed to manipulate our emotions in predictable ways, and there isn’t an instant of doubt about whether or not these two people are going to work out their issues. This is odd because Mostly Martha had me guessing, and yet it’s nearly the same film down to nearly all the scenes and a great deal of the dialogue. It has to be the actors whose unknown quality let me think that any outcome was possible. I enjoyed not knowing them, especially Sergio Castellitto as Mario with the big nose and sad eyes that you would never find in the lead of an American romantic comedy. Most of you will see only one of these, and if you do, it will probably be No Reservations as a date night movie, but really the one to watch is Mostly Martha.