Even before Kate goes one toque over the line and tells a fussy customer where he can stick the foie gras, her boss (Patricia Clarkson) sends her to a shrink (Bob Balaban). When Kate's sister dies in a car crash and leaves her daughter, Zoe (Abigail Breslin), in Kate's custody, her panic is compounded by grief.
Kate doesn't have room in her regimented life for anything but work. How can she make space for the needs of an orphaned 9-year-old?
For the first half of the movie from Scott Hicks (Shine), I grumbled uncharitably into my notebook, "Liked this one a lot better when it was called Baby Boom," the one where Diane Keaton leaves the Madison Avenue fast track for the New England mommy track.
But after a while, palate warmed by Stuart Dryburgh's earth-toned cinematography - so delicious I could smell the saffron - I melted.
Which is more than I can say for Zeta-Jones' Kate. She is ravishing, but relatively unemotional, throughout this diversion, more cinematic amuse-bouche than entree.
Ordered to take a vacation to care for her niece, Kate struggles to make a connection with Zoe (an affecting Breslin). The chef communicates best through food, but prepares an unfamiliar and elaborate breast of duck for the girl who needs the familiarity and comfort of spaghetti.
When Kate returns to work and finds a new Italian-trained sous-chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart), in her kitchen, the control freak spins out of control.
In Sandra Nettelbeck's Mostly Martha, the heroine's German efficiency needed the Italian passion served up by her sous-chef, a cultural metaphor that doesn't translate here.
As reimagined by Carol Fuchs, the strictly-by-the-recipe Kate gets loosened up by Nick's improvisational approach.
In letting others in her life, and into her kitchen, Kate learns that too many cooks improve the broth. Alas, not even Eckhart and Breslin can get Zeta-Jones to simmer.
No Reservations **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Scott Hicks, written by Carol Fuchs, based on Sandra Nettelbeck's Mostly Martha. With Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, and Patricia Clarkson.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (family tragedy)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215 854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/