'The Simpsons Movie': Big Draw, By Kurt Loder

America's favorite free-hand family goes Hollywood. Also: the smart, sleek rom-com 'No Reservations.'

I won't blow any of the jokes in "The Simpsons Movie." They're too fresh and funny to give away. I will say that in this very imaginative expatiation of the Simpsons' world, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the president of the United States, which is pretty amusing. And the evil bad guy is a sort of Nazi environmentalist (could happen, I guess). And the members of Green Day ... no, no, I can't. Let's move along.

Maybe if I just outline the story a bit. Okay: The Simpsons' humdrum hometown of Springfield has a serious pollution problem; among other things, the local lake has turned into a viscous, bubbling sump. Do-gooding daughter Lisa Simpson tries to spread some alarm, but is drowned out by the slamming of neighborhood doors in her face. There's also a pig, which Lisa's father, the hapless Homer, has adopted, and whose copious droppings he disposes of in typically nitwit fashion. Meanwhile, Homer's irrepressible son, Bart, has taken up naked skateboarding. I really wish I could elaborate on this, because not only is it a rare (and brilliantly conceived) instance of full-frontal cartoon nudity; it's also a witty jab at the conventions that usually prohibit such things. I mustn't say more, though. It's hard, but ...

Then the federal government weighs in on the pollution problem, with predictably helpful results. There's also a torch-waving lynch mob, a pretty great escape (led by baby Maggie, underestimated as always) and a carnival competition that marks a new "Simpsons" high point in free-hand animation. (This scene cries out for description — in vain, as you see.) And in the middle of the movie, there's an out-of-left-field journey to a faraway place that's so funny, and at the same time so aglow with feeling for the characters (it triggers a marital crisis for Homer and his normally stoic wife, Marge), that you marvel at the minds that came up with it.

Many a beloved character passes through the film at least briefly: Mr. Burns, Homer's heartless boss; Ned Flanders, the kindly Evangelical neighbor; Krusty the Clown. Longtime "Simpsons" addicts, however, will probably be most gratified to find that creator Matt Groening and his gifted crew of cartoon artisans have made a real movie, not just an over-stretched TV episode. And even people who've never seen a single installment of the series will almost certainly find themselves laughing from beginning to end. In fact, they may well start chortling before the picture even gets underway. But I can't go into that.

'No Reservations': Well Done

Romantic comedies get a bad rap from reviewers — possibly a side effect of too many joyless hours spent at free screenings. Sure, the rom-com is a formulaic genre; but think of it as risotto — a formulaic dish, but one that, with the right ingredients and precise execution, can reach a level of simple perfection more gratifying than many a more ambitious culinary invention.

A good romantic comedy must have at least three things: an attractive couple who are perfect for each other, if only one or both of them would wake up and realize it; a cute complication, which will eventually serve to draw them together; and, yes, a happy ending.

In 'No Reservations,' the couple could scarcely be more attractive. Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is an on-the-rise chef in a fashionable Manhattan restaurant. Her sophisticated New American cuisine is making her a star (quail cooked in pig's bladder is surely much tastier than it may sound), but she has no life outside of her kitchen. Her last romantic relationship ended three years ago; and while she's seeing a therapist (Bob Balaban) about her Type-A personality problem, their sessions always seem to get sidetracked into food, and end with her whipping up some tasty little treat for him.

Into Kate's kitchen one day comes a new sous chef named Nick (Aaron Eckhart). Immediately they butt heads. Where Kate is a trained pro obsessed with her career, Nick is an amiable charmer who casually picked up his cooking skills during some vagabond years in Europe. On the job, Kate is all business. Nick likes to blast Verdi on the kitchen boombox and mock-conduct the arias with whatever poultry parts may be at hand. The restaurant's owner, Paula (Patricia Clarkson), loves Nick's flair. Kate suspects he's after her job.

Now the complication. This turns out to be a 9-year-old girl named Zoe (Abigail Breslin), who is Kate's niece. When Zoe's mother dies in a car crash (and her father proves to be a little too-conveniently unfindable), Kate moves the girl into her spacious brownstone apartment. Understandably, the traumatized Zoe is remote and wary. To complicate matters further, she's also scared to death by the food Kate cooks at home — what's the deal with serving fish with the head still attached?

The story of course requires Kate to start taking Zoe along on her restaurant shifts, and Zoe and Nick to immediately hit it off there, and Zoe to then begin plotting a hook-up between Nick and Kate, whom she's correctly identified as being made for each other.

One of the movie's central pleasures is the way it deftly hits just the right tones as it negotiates the story's tricky emotional terrain, from the verbal zing of the early restaurant scenes to Zoe's orphan heartbreak and then Kate and Nick's peppery courtship. As she demonstrated in the 2003 "Intolerable Cruelty," Zeta-Jones has a lively comic gift, to which she skillfully subordinates her natural glamor. And Eckhart, with his tousled charm and scene-stealing smile, is an ideal foil.

The movie's chief revelation, though, is Breslin, who's best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in last year's "Little Miss Sunshine." Nowhere in this picture does Breslin stoop to trade entirely on her vast reserves of adorability. She's a real actress of already-impressive resources — she can pierce your heart with a faraway look as easily as with a more standard kiddy grin. Zeta-Jones and Eckhart occupy the spotlight here, as they should; but Breslin — who just turned 10 a few months ago — provides formidable ragamuffin wattage of her own. Her performance would be reason enough to see the movie, if there weren't several others. I mentioned the happy ending, right?

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