Eleven-year-old Abigail Breslin pretty much steals No Reservations from Catherine Zeta-Jones, but that’s to be expected — no amount of truffles and romance could ever hope to overshadow the original Little Miss Sunshine.
All three of the principal actors in this pleasant, inoffensive romantic comedy are playing against type. That’s refreshing. Zeta-Jones, as the head chef of a trendy New York restaurant, displays a vulnerability and wistfulness little used in her typical costume-epic roles. Her Kate Armstrong, a moderately imperious workaholic who leads a solitary private life and gushes gastro porn to her shrink (nice character work by Bob Balaban), rules her kitchen domain with a tough-but-fair attitude, although she’s murder on uppity customers. It’s not exactly The Devil Sears Foie Gras, but, natch, there’s something missing in her life.
Enter her schoolgirl niece Zoe (Breslin), whose mother, Kate’s sister, is killed in an auto crash in the first reel, leaving the youngster in Kate’s care. If Breslin was manically unstoppable in Little Miss Sunshine, here she’s entirely stoppable, subdued even, grieving for her mother while adjusting to her new life as latchkey kid and eventually moonlighting in her aunt’s restaurant for fun. Enter also Kate’s new sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart), an up-and-coming culinary star who drives a pickup truck and plays opera arias at full blast in the workplace. Eckhart usually specializes in nasty individuals, but here he’s a foodie’s dream date, a frisky guy who loves to cook. Nick helps Kate make up with Zoe, both gals open themselves to love, and everything is nice as pie.
No Reservations, an American remake of the lightly likable German film Mostly Martha, follows carefully in the footsteps of Like Water for Chocolate, Chocolat (the Johnny Depp-Juliette Binoche-Lasse Hallström one, not Claire Denis’ more challenging African tale), Big Night, Tortilla Soup, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo, and countless other dessert-and-cuddles shows. Director Scott Hicks (Shine) relies a bit too much on pop music song-overs in place of dialogue, as if what they’re actually saying doesn’t matter, but generally handles the property with care. Too bad Patricia Clarkson’s role as Kate’s boss, the flirtatious owner of 22 Bleecker, wasn’t expanded a bit to elaborate on her obvious lust for Nick. She would have lost in the end, but it would have added a touch of salty fish sauce to a movie already drowning in sweetness. Chalk it up as an alternative to watching a kitchen full of singing rats.
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the spaceship. Specifically, press the ejector button on Sunshine, a lead-balloon sci-fi adventure about a team of astronauts on a trip to the fast-fading Sun in a needle-like spacecraft behind a humongous heat shield. Their mission is to save the Earth by reigniting our solar system’s weakened star with a nuclear payload the size of Manhattan, but things go wrong — both on the voyage and with the screenplay. Talk about sunburn. Don’t pack a tube of SPF 50 to the theater; bring a can of Jolt or a double espresso. A few of the action scenes may be hot, literally, but the dialogue is to snore. Instead of a dubious rehash of Armageddon or the Alien movies, it looks more like an off-world episode of Survivor.
Director Danny Boyle, currently working his way through a list of genre projects after the success of the zombie yarn 28 Days Later — what’s next, a foodie comedy? — gets pretty good bang for his $45 million. The golden spacesuits are terrific, and several of the set pieces, especially the “man overboard” scene with desperate astronauts wrapped in insulation, make good use of special effects. But Doyle and his regular screenwriter Alex Garland don’t have the extravagant visual or story sense of a Stanley Kubrick or a Ridley Scott, and so their interesting cast of space troopers (Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, et al.) is doomed to have its dramatic efforts fall short, like the “lost spaceship” floating somewhere south of Venus. Is Sunshine good science? That hardly matters. By the time its 108 minutes are up, you’ll be praying for the solar system to be destroyed, just to escape the movie.