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‘No Reservations’ is an unsatisfying meal

The film is missing the charm of the German original and tries to hard to get across the emotions of the screenplay. By John Hartl

One of those rare German films that registered with audiences in the United States, writer-director Sandra Nettleback’s “Mostly Martha” grossed a respectable $4 million at the American box office in 2002.

The adequate but unremarkable Warner Bros. remake, “No Reservations,” has enough star power to triple that figure during its opening weekend alone. With Catherine Zeta-Jones taking over the central role, and Aaron Eckhart playing her boyfriend, it provides a semi-adult alternative to the cartoons and cartoonish action films that are flourishing at the multiplexes.

Like the original, it’s a comedy-drama about a talented, high-maintenance chef (Zeta-Jones) who is suddenly forced to find room in her life for her recently orphaned 9-year-old niece (Abigail Breslin). When the restaurant’s worried owner (Patricia Clarkson) secretly hires another, more playful cook (Eckhart), the kitchen rivalry quickly leads to romantic complications.

“No Reservations” relocates the story from Hamburg to Manhattan, where everyone appears to have a luxury apartment and enough money to quit their day jobs on a whim. Carol Fuchs’ screenplay also changes the chef’s name from Martha to Kate, but otherwise it’s a fairly faithful reworking.

What’s missing is the easy charm of the German film — which was no masterpiece. The sudden, unexpected death of the chef’s sister seemed like a plot device in “Mostly Martha,” and it’s even more strained in “No Reservations.” Whenever the chef and her niece are required to register grief, nothing Breslin and Zeta-Jones do can make the emotions seem genuine.

“You’re trying too hard,” says the girl to her aunt. She could be talking about the movie, which only fitfully delivers. As she suggests, the filmmakers might be better off improvising or trying to establish a style of their own. Slavishly imitating the original film just makes the remake seem glossier and less spontaneous.

Charm can be a difficult thing to reproduce, and director Scott Hicks (an Oscar nominee for “Shine”) works overtime to pull it off. Occasionally he delivers, thanks mostly to his handling of a talented collection of actors.

Zeta-Jones is convincing as an icy woman whose career trumps her personal life, which means so little to her that she challenges her therapist (Bob Balaban) when he dares to ask about her previous lovers. When she’s required, at long last, to develop some chemistry with Eckhart, both actors deliver.

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Breslin, Oscar-nominated earlier this year for “Little Miss Sunshine,” has a tougher time making her character register as a child who has just lost her mother in a horrific traffic accident. Withdrawn at times, manipulative when she wants to be, she comes off as a cipher. Clarkson and Balaban, pros that they are, have even less to work with.

As a foodie movie, “No Reservations” can’t compete with such mouth-watering spectacles as “Babette’s Feast” or “Big Night,” but the meals (heavy on the lobster and creamy desserts) are delectably photographed by Stuart Dryburgh. If you’re not hungry when you enter the theater, you will be when you exit.