By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 25, 2007 04:00 AM
David Lee

No Reservations has the dicey luck to arrive in a summer that has gotten a head start on celebrating the arcane choreography of restaurant cooking with Ratatouille. So this particular salute is a second seating. Well, not to assume the role of the sniffing critic in that great Pixar pic and get all Anton Ego or anything, but the following are missing from this aspirational chick flick that adds a grating of food = sex = soul to the mix: (1) an animated rat; (2) any spice; and (3) any aroma of joy.

The substitute ingredients are (1) Catherine Zeta-Jones as Kate, a great chef (she’s single and lives in a fabulous brownstone in New York City) who happens to like life very orderly, controlled, and finely minced; (2) Aaron Eckhart as Nick, a great chef (he’s single and lives in a fabulous loft in New York City) who happens to like life very loose, spontaneous, and stirred up; and (3) Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin as Kate’s 9-year-old niece, Zoe, who unexpectedly comes under her aunt’s less-than-nurturing wing as if recycled from Baby Boom, the opportunistic 1987 comeuppance for yuppie women who dare to want it all, starring Diane Keaton. Kate runs the kitchen at an upscale West Village restaurant (a soignée Patricia Clarkson plays owner and manager) with precision and intensity of purpose. Nick, who shows up to fill in as sous-chef, likes to crack jokes, sing along to opera while he sautés, and wave an uncooked quail in the air for musical emphasis. Zoe looks sad when her aunt serves her fancy duck dishes at home for dinner, since all the kid wants is a hug and a fish stick. (Breslin quietly centers the movie with her gentle seriousness.)

If you don’t instantly recognize that bickering Kate and Nick are eventually going to want to fork each other — and that Nick will teach Kate how to become a warmer, softer woman capable of relating to others who are not, say, fishmongers — then you have never read a recipe book or a romance novel.

A familiar dish doesn’t have to be a bland one, but No Reservations, which has been Americanized from the 2002 German romantic comedy Mostly Martha with a script by first-timer Carol Fuchs and impersonal direction from Scott Hicks (Shine), doesn’t allow for the slightest grain of salt. Or pepper, beginning with Zeta-Jones’ tense performance as a ” regular” New York woman who dresses in a palette of gloom and wears a hat borrowed from Mary Tyler Moore. It’s fun to see the glamorous actress turn down her movie-star flame, but it’s a pity she’s stuck with so many trite gestures on Kate’s journey to fulfillment. The all-work, no-play professionally successful female character who comes home to her empty apartment, presses the button on her answering machine (as if she can’t read the LED counter), and hears the accusatory refrain ” No messages” is the creation of moviemakers with no new ideas about what to make for dinner. C+