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‘No Reservations’ needed for pot-boiler

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

In 2001, a delightful German flick was released entitled “Bella Martha.” It was a charming little romantic comedy that won a basket of festival awards with a cast mostly unknown in America. Retitled “Mostly Martha,” it tantalized the taste buds of a reasonable number of U.S. cinema fans, made around five mill, and then quietly sank into that great film slumgullion in the sky.

Inevitably, it was remade into a Hollywood star vehicle. First they changed the title to “No Reservations,” then it was rewritten to toss out all the charm, was promptly horribly miscast, filmed, released and immediately booed by the critics and ignored by most of us wise old movie fans.

So what else is new?

Well, it’s playing at the Dixie in Downtown Staunton this coming week, and there’s one very good reason to see it – if you’re a fan of Abigail Breslin, the adorable young actress from Academy Award-winning “Little Miss Sunshine.” She’s terrific as a suddenly-orphaned waif who goes to live with her gourmet chef aunt, stiffly played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Deft as a wily raccoon, Abigail steals this film from Zeta-Jones and appealing Aaron Eckhart, cheffishly portraying the film’s love interest.

It’s an oh-so-familiar plot. Z-J is a domineering Iron Chef-type gourmet cook in a posh Greenwich Village bistro. Her life is her work, yadda-yadda. The café boss (the great Patricia Clarkson in a completely wasted role) brings in Eckhart, a free-wheeling fun-guy-type chef to help out, and the boring old Battle of the Sexes is on again.

Again, again.

It should be no Spoiler to state that the li’l girl, Breslin, eventually brings the warring chefs together. Just be prepared for the fact that the best joke in the whole romantic comedy can be seen in the trailers, where Z-J is shown irately delivering a raw steak to a picky customer.

So much for the familiar story. What’s more interesting is, what went wrong. Well, Catherine Zeta-Jones is terrific in colorful crap like “Chicago” (2002) or “The Legend of Zorro” (2005) where she mostly just has to look sensational and be a Movie Star. But the “No Reservations” role dramatically ranges from Ice Goddess to Supplicating Sweetie-Pie, and Catherine just can’t cut the cake.

One aspect of the original that was so appealing was the culture clash between the chefs. She was a haughty German, he was a loveable Italian. Both stereotypes, but we accepted that. Plus, Martina Gedeck and Sergio Castellitto were superbly cast in the original potboiler. In “No Reservations,” both chefs are American, and the only thing that clashes is their particular food tastes. He kind of favors Italian, she’s French fried. So what?

I liked Aaron Eckhart very much in “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and a pair of dynamite indie flicks – “In the Company of Men” (1997) and “Your Friends & Neighbors” (1998) – but within this script he can only be rather amiable; low-key and comfortable, it looks like all the director (Scott Hicks) ever said to him was, “OK now, be charming.”

Who would I have cast? Well, Abigail Breslin was perfect. But Virginia Madsen would have been much more interesting in the Z-J role. And Julia Roberts could have eaten it for breakfast. And in the male lead, the Scottish actor Tom Conti would have been perfect. Twenty years ago. Remember him in “Shirley Valentine?”

On the other hand, if you haven’t seen “Mostly Martha” (it’s on DVD, don’t miss it) and just can’t get enough culinary antics from Gordon Ramsey on TV’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” just think of this film as a pleasant little air-conditioned summer diversion.

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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