(*Warning: Spoilers ahead.*)
It’s tough enough trying to figure out what to do about childcare when you’re a working parent who’s had time to plan since your child was but the size of a wee grain of rice. But if working parenthood is suddenly thrust upon you with no warning, trying to figure out what arrangement works best for you and the child can be a nightmare.
That’s the premise of the Catherine Zeta-Jones flick, “No Reservations.” Zeta-Jones plays Kate Armstrong, an accomplished gourmet chef who runs the kitchen in a high-end New York City restaurant. She gets up each morning in the 4 o’clock hour to go to the docks and select fish for the restaurant’s specials. She slugs back home, snoozes for a bit, then returns to the restaurant in the afternoon. And stays until midnight, sometimes later. Now imagine shoe-horning the care of a freshly orphaned 9-year-old girl -- Kate’s niece Zoë (Abigail Breslin) -- into that kind of a schedule, with little to no help from anyone else.
“No Reservations ” paints a spot-on picture of the harsh realities of trying to find after-school care, as well as evening care (Kate works nights), on the fly. Early in the film, Kate tries, and fails, to find a babysitter for Zoë. She first contacts an agency and requests a babysitter to watch the child after-school and through the night until she comes home from the restaurant. And who shows up at her door just before Kate has to leave? A young babysitter decked out in Goth attire, complete with nose ring, ripped fishnet stockings, black lipstick, a dog collar and attitude. Hours later when Kate returns, not only does she discover that the sitter left cigarette ash-filled plates all over, but she took off well before Kate came home from work. The terrified, grieving little girl who is in a new apartment, all alone, is found hiding under a bed with a flashlight and some stuffed animals.
Not wanting a repeat with another bad sitter, Kate takes Zoë to work the next night, where the sad girl sits in the back of the kitchen. Alone. The first smile she cracks is when new chef Nick Palmer (Aaron Eckhart) -- hired to cover for a pregnant chef who was about to go on maternity leave -- engages her and gets her to eat a bowl of pasta he made. Gradually, Nick draws Zoë out of her shell. As I watched the evening unfold, I kept thinking that Kate was lucky she was the head chef and that no one minded that Zoë was hanging around and falling asleep over her A-Z Mystery books in Kate’s office. Not everyone would’ve been able to take her kid to work.
Hours later, Kate rises at 4:30 a.m., planning on leaving Zoë sleeping while she goes to the docks. But Zoë wakes up and wants to come along. All is fine until the two oversleep after coming back to the apartment and Zoë is late for school.
Though Zoë blossoms during her subsequent evenings in the kitchen with Nick and Kate at her side -- earning the nickname “sous chef” from Nick -- a 9-year-old simply cannot keep up with these kinds of hours, never mind do her homework. Soon the unforgiving school principal summons Kate to her office to tell her that Zoë has been sleeping in class. Then she threatens to have folks from social services put Zoë in a foster home if Kate continues bringing Zoë to work. Throw in the fact that when the pregnant chef goes into labor at the restaurant, Kate brings her to the hospital and completely forgets about picking up Zoë, and one can see how lonely single parenthood can be, how fraught with potential landmines.
Kate is left with no choice but to ask a divorced dad, who lives in her apartment building and has two boys of his own, to check in on Zoë, who is left alone in the apartment, while Kate is at work. It isn’t until Kate finally finds a nanny, via the neighbor, when things finally began to calm down, at least as far as childcare is concerned. Bonding emotionally with a girl she hardly knew, that takes some work.
There is one troubling subplot though that wasn’t fully clarified throughout the film, involving the pregnant waitress, Leah (Jenny Wade). Soon after having her baby, restaurant owner Paula (Patricia Clarkson), who has a contentious relationship with Kate, offers Nick Kate’s job as the head chef. This left me with the question: Would there now be three chefs, or would one of the female chefs – the mom on maternity leave, or the new working mom Kate -- get the unceremonious boot? This was never made clear, and I wondered if the owner was engaging in parental discrimination.
“No Reservations” is refreshing in that it doesn’t patronize Kate for her career goals, nor does it whitewash her difficulties in becoming an instant parent. New York Times  reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz put it well when he said, “Modern Hollywood movies often genuflect toward feminism while implying that a woman isn’t truly a woman until she has gratefully surrendered to motherhood. While watching ‘No Reservations’ you keep waiting for the other high heeled shoe to drop, but it never really does.”
For that, I was thankful, and, by the end of the film, very hungry.