Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars), the director of No Reservations, deserves hearty congratulations, in my opinion, for coming as close as anyone can to defying Bowman’s First Law of Remakes — which is that remakes are always worse and nearly always much, much worse than the originals they’re based on. Well, you can see why. Not only can Hollywood, which is the only place where they make remakes, not help Hollywoodizing everything it touches, but also remakes start out well behind in the race because, by definition, they haven’t got what made the movie they are copying worth copying to start with — that is, a compelling individual vision. In this case, that vision belonged to the German director Sandra Nettelbeck whose Bella Martha, was released in this country as Mostly Martha in 2002.
That movie had starred the only averagely beautiful Martina Gedeck as the eponymous Martha, a workaholic chef at an upscale Hamburg restaurant, the only averagely cute Maxime Foerste as the orphaned niece that comes to live with her, and the genuine Italian, Sergio Castellitto, as the sous-chef who brings the sunshine into their lives. In their places, the remake has the movie-star beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones, the movie-star cute Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine and the imitation Italian but movie-star handsome Aaron Eckhart. The result is a high Hollywood gloss on the finished product that makes it seem, at least for those who have seen the original, somewhat detached from reality.
Both movies are mainly concerned with probing the psyche of the central character, whose name is changed from Martha to Kate for the remake. Like Martha in the earlier movie, Kate is supposedly lonely and emotionally bottled-up, but it was a lot easier to believe that about Ms. Gedeck than it is of Ms. Zeta-Jones. Mostly Martha was a touching and bittersweet variation on the venerable European myth of the warm-blooded Southerner come to town to thaw out the Teutonic ice maiden. No Reservations is more of a rollicking comedy based on the American myth of the free-spirited wanderer (Mr. Eckhart) who makes the up-tight career girl (Ms. Zeta-Jones) more, well, down-loose — and so, inevitably, who teaches her how to love. In spite of its sticking very closely to the original, No Reservations makes some other subtle changes. Ms. Nettelbeck’s movie emphasized the relationship between Martha and her niece and made the food more or less incidental. Mr. Hicks reverses these emphases.
Movies about food and wine — like Big Night, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Sideways, A Good Year or even Waitress — are getting to be for us what movies about artists or musicians were for our parents and movies about aristocrats and the idle rich were for our grandparents — that is, an easy way to class up a picture. Now even cartoon rats are classy if, as in Ratatouille, they aspire to be chefs. Did I say rats? Heck, even Adam Sandler re-imagined his usual overgrown adolescent as a chef in Spanglish (2004). Similarly, Mr. Eckhart’s Nick tastefully conveys his passionate nature with the help of the boom-box on which he plays snatches of Italian opera — the usual ones, “Nessun dorma” and “O mio babbino caro” — in Kate’s kitchen. Interestingly, his prototype in Ms. Nettelbeck’s movie was into Dean Martin instead.
The touch of class is a way of conferring a kind of low-level celebrity status on the characters that elevates them to big-screen stature and so makes them a better match for their movie-star looks in a movie like No Reservations. But it also takes away some of the coherence of the characters and their relationships. In Mostly Martha, for instance, Martha’s seeing a therapist on the instructions of her boss, the restaurant’s owner, is meant to be an important clue to her character. “Why do you think your boss thinks you need therapy?” the shrink asks her.
“I have no idea,” she replies.
Exactly the same lines are repeated in No Reservations, but instead of seeming like a telling detail about her, part of her determined refusal to part with a single scrap of her emotional autonomy, they seem more like a joke. Miss Zeta-Jones’s Kate is so dazzlingly beautiful and charming — in short, and in spite of her imperiousness in the kitchen, so perfect as she is — that we have no idea either. No Reservations also makes much more of Kate’s hostility to Nick, whom she professes to believe has been hired to take over her job. But this is just a way for them to “meet cute,” not a real or believable anxiety for us.
In short, Mr. Hicks has taken most of the look of real-life out of Mostly Martha and instead made it a celebrity vehicle. What’s left, however, is perhaps the best a remake director can hope for, which is a picture that makes those who haven’t seen the original go away thinking they have seen a pretty good movie.
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