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Undercooked 

Having never seen the critically praised German film Mostly Martha, a bona fide art house hit in 2001, I was quite surprised to watch this treacly little American remake of it, thinking to myself, "How could they take something that was supposedly so good and ruin it so much?"

"There's no greater sin than to overcook a quail," explains Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to her shrink in the opening frames of the film. She's the chef at 22 Bleecker, an ever-busy gourmet restaurant in Greenwich Village.

OK, so we know right away that she's a food snob, cooking for other food snobs. And we soon see that her kitchen is abuzz, with a crack crew banging out the meals, and Kate cracking the whip over them, taking time out once in a while to chill for a minute (literally) in the walk-in freezer. But hey, it's her life choice, and she loves it.

Cut to her sister, calling from her car, head cocked into her cell phone, talking to Kate, and talking to -- and turning around to look at -- her daughter Zoe (Abigail Breslin) in the back seat, all while maneuvering through the streets. Hello! You are a horrible driver. You should not be talking on a cell phone and looking backward while driving. You will die in a horrible accident.

No, we don't see the accident; we just see Kate get the call to come pick up the body and, by the way, become the new guardian of her niece, who should recover just fine.

And that might have made an interesting story, at least if it wasn't already done, poorly, in Raising Helen a couple of years ago. Besides, this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. But there's nothing romantic about a busy woman with no social life -- or social graces -- who gets up at 4:30 every morning to go to work and yells at customers if they have any complaints about their food.

Enter the second plot. While Kate takes time off to move Zoe into her home and get her set in school, restaurant owner Paula (Patricia Clarkson, not given much to do with the role), hires another chef to cover for her. So with bitchy, no-nonsense Kate away, the kitchen staff gets a happy treat by suddenly working under happy-go-lucky, smiling, singing Nick (Aaron Eckhart, the only good ingredient in this bad stew), whom Kate, upon her return, refers to as the "lunatic in my kitchen."

Here's what's supposed to make the story work: Nick, an up-and-comer, is a huge fan of the established Kate, and is thrilled to be working in the same kitchen as her. But she, assuming that he's after her job, immediately despises him.

So what do you think? Will she stop angrily snapping off the classical CDs he brings into the kitchen? Will he figure out the question he puts to her: "Why are you so mad at me?" Will they become an item? Is there any piece of predictable plot turn that isn't blatantly telegraphed?

But that's not even the major problem. Breslin, who proved herself to be a charming and talented actress in Little Miss Sunshine, is given only minimal dialogue; she spends the first part of the film silently pouting. Zeta-Jones is certainly a capable actress, but she just as certainly does not have the chops to pull off the 180-degree character turn that's required of her. She's pretty good as a foul-tempered workaholic. She's also pretty good as a happy, laughing love interest. But the really necessary scenes -- ones that would show how she morphed from one person into another -- don't exist in the film. She just changes.

Thinking back on that, it may not be Zeta-Jones' fault. The script regularly bypasses any character or story development -- it just lets plots change with no explanation. At one point, Kate and Zoe are getting closer. At another, when overworked Kate forgets to pick Zoe up at school, Zoe decides Kate is her enemy. In the next reel, they're pals again, skipping school and work to hang out together. This is called lazy, sloppy writing -- a claim that's proven when the same thing happens with the up-and-down, down-and-up relationship between Kate and Nick. Lots of results, no buildup.

There are two films about food out this summer. Ratatouille is a tasty delight. No Reservations is more like burnt toast and a rotten egg.

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