31 July 2007

CHECK, PLEASE

How can you possibly be disappointed by a film like No Reservations? It doesn't lie about what it is, not for a moment. "Alright kids, here's Catherine Zeta-Jones being statuesque! Here's Aaron Eckhart being goofy and charming! Here's Abigail Breslin being so damn cute! And it's all set in a kitchen!"

On the other hand, not being disappointed by a film is in no way, shape or form the same thing as finding that movie enjoyable. It just means that you have no right to expect it to be anything that it is not, such as humorous or sincere. Because it's clearly not going to be those things.

I mean to say, that when I declare that No Reservations is insulting, condescending, unimaginative and trite, I blame myself for all of those things. I should have known better and I did know better, and I saw it anyway.

It must be said that as a cinematic construction, there is nothing "bad" about the movie, nothing whatsoever. It is a product of the sort of steely, soulless competence that marks so very many films as the work of professionals who view this as a job, not an art form. It's not that director Scott Hicks is evil, or that his ideas are beneath contempt; he is on hand to make a film that specifically will not challenge or enlighten anyone. He is supposed to make sure that the script happens in front of the camera, and that is why there is not a single shot that you haven't seen in another film. Not a better film, necessarily - just another film that is probably just like this one.

Of course, there's a reason for that, which is that movies like No Reservations are not made for people who attend to things like direction and editing, people who describe the cinematography in a movie and know what they're talking about. These movies are brief distractions, stories that are meant to entertain an undemanding audience for precisely as long as the film's running time and no more. That is the level upon which they should be dealt with.

So how is this story? Just as uninflected and workmanlike as the craftsmanship, I'm afraid. Our heroine is Kate (Zeta-Jones), one of New York's top chefs at a small French restaurant owned by Paula (Patricia Clarkson). Kate has a sister who dies tragically, leaving a terribly darling niece, Zoe (Breslin), who moves in with her aunt, leading to all sorts of fraughtness involving Kate's natural lack of rapport with children. Or other human beings, as evidenced by the way she completely botches meeting the starstruck new sous chef Nick (Eckhart), who wants her body almost as much as he wants to learn the secrets of her sauces.

It is a foreboding thing when a film will not deign to give any of its characters surnames, but at least all those fare better than Kate's unnamed therapist (Bob Balaban), whose primary role in the film is to assure us that yes, Kate's cooking is that damn good.

It's a remake of the well-regarded 2001 German film Mostly Martha, which I should have seen by now but for the combined efforts of Netflix and the US Postal Service to make my life more difficult than it should be. I realize that the Europeans have been progressively moving towards an Americanized cinema of meaningless rom-coms, but it's still a little dispiriting to think that something this mechanical has its roots in the once-proud national cinema of Murnau and Herzog, Lang and Wenders. On the other hand, mechanisms can be thrilling to watch if they're built well and their operation is smooth and effortless. In the case of No Reservations, that would have required instantly lovable characters whom we identify with and want to see happy.

It does and it doesn't. Here's the big problem I had with No Reservations, far more than its simple, deterministic plot: I really quite liked Kate at the start, when she was snappish and authoritarian and lived every moment for her kitchen, rather than at the end, when she's eating pizza on the floor underneath a bedsheet tent with Charming Manmeat and The Delicate Waif.

A woman whose single drive is to be the most perfect chef she can be, who dedicates her days and nights to running a kitchen whose every product is the stuff of magic; she is not a woman that we should automatically call "unhappy" because she lacks a scruffy-haired pixie boy and a child. It seems to me that Kate is doing pretty damn fine for herself, actually, and I'm not interested in calling "sexism" on the film, but I am quite annoyed by its litany of urgent suggestions that professional success cannot conceivably lead to a fulfilled life. It's obvious that Kate is proud of the work that she and her team do, and for the movie to shake its finger and reply that no, family is the only thing that matters, this is to treat the audience like children.

It doesn't help that Kate is being played by Zeta-Jones, an imposing and beautiful woman who, if she ever possessed the ability to seem unsatisfied, lost it years ago. In most of her roles, she has the mere ghost of a shit-eating grin pretty much nonstop, and in this particular film that reads as, she likes her life and she likes being able to throw tantrums occasionally.

It also doesn't help that Nick is mostly a jerk. We meet him after he has shut down the kitchen to show off his knowledge of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot (see, I can do it too), and this is meant to suggest that he is a free spirit, and not just flighty. He gets the traditional romantic-comedy "he's not a stalker because he's so gosh-darned earnest" exemption, and he wears goddamn Crocs in the kitchen, bright orange Crocs that, when I first saw them, just ripped me out of the movie, and it didn't help that my seatmate leaned over at that exact moment to whisper, "he's wearing Crocs." Yes he is. And it makes me want to punch him in the face. If nothing else, this demonstrates that Aaron Eckhart should not play nice men, because he wears "smarmy jerk" around him like a shroud. I'm certain he's a wonderful human being in real life, but that's not what I want to see onscreen.

So thank God for Abigal Breslin, who is just one great role away from being, legitimately, one of the great working actresses. I said it in the case of Little Miss Sunshine, and I'll say it again: she's not just good for a kid, she's good, period, and in this particular case she rips the film right away from her grown-up costars. When Breslin can capture the twisting nuances of grief and survivor's guilt enough to make your stomach knot up in a movie wherein Catherine Zeta-Jones never even cries convincingly, says something. It says primarily, "Abigail Breslin's agent needs to pick better scripts," but when you can legitimately say of an 11-year-old that you'll see her next picture just because she is in it, that means something.

Lastly: thank God as well for Philip Glass, who takes the bubbly notes of every unnoticed comedy film score ever composed, and fits them into his own, very unmistakable idiom. It's a bizarre fit, to be sure, like listening to "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on a mouth harp, but it's weird enough to be extremely compelling and engaging.

5/10

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

I can't believe you paid to see a romcom that even I refuse to see for free.

Cameron said...

you are not entirely correct in saying that the characters don't have surnames; the only part i can actually remember from the trailer is when Aaron Eckhart introduces himself as "Nicholas Palmer." however, i only remember it because i have a friend with the same name, so i do not blame you for not remembering it at all.

Charlie said...

I saw this in the only acceptable place; strapped into a chair on a transatlantic flight. It was horrible, maudlin, calculating, passionless, smarmy, sickly crap.