2001, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Maria Ripoll. Starring Hector Elizondo, Jacqueline Obradors, Elizabeth Peña, Tamara Mello, Nikolai Kinski, Paul Rodriguez, Raquel Welch, Constance Marie.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001
This is a movie about communication: how we use food to communicate, how food brings us together and pulls us apart, how food is totemic and inter-generational, how it changes in tune with the culture.? I wrote those words in 1994 in my review of Ang Lee's wonderful Chinese film Eat Drink Man Woman. That description rings just as true for Tortilla Soup, an American-made movie that transposes Lee's story about a Taiwanese family to Mexican-American Los Angeles. It's amazing how similar the key elements of the two movies are, yet how distinctive they are as a result of the different cultures they portray. In Tortilla Soup, Hector Elizondo plays the family patriarch Martin, a retired master chef and a longtime widower, who lives in the family home with his three grown daughters. The only house rules are that everyone gather for the Sunday dinner that Martin, who is still a great chef despite his loss of his sense of taste and smell, grandly prepares each week. (The movie is a foodie's delight, with loving close-ups of the details of meal preparations that destine the movie to become one of those classics whose recipes are imitated by fans and aficionados.) These days, however, whenever the family gathers for Sunday dinner it seems that one or another of the daughters has ?an announcement,? which tends to result in unfinished meals and shattered dishware. Like the daughters in Eat Drink Man Woman, one is an repressed spinster chemistry teacher (Peña); one is a well-educated, fast-track business exec (Obradors); and the youngest is a rebellious-for-the-hell-of-it teen (Mello). The movie cross-cuts between events in the lives of Martin and his girls, and just at the point the viewer begins wondering if all this colorful but inconsequential material is going to lead to anything of substance, it does -- just as it did in Ang Lee's film before. Like many a meal, the lives of these characters don't necessarily turn out as planned, but the surprises are what provide the extra flavor and delight. Tortilla Soup adds a degree of the specifically American-immigrant experience to the story, by showing the father's desire to have his daughters achieve more than he did in life. (Ironically, the daughter whose interests most mirror his own is the one he most encourages to strike out on her own.) Only a quite over-the-top character played by Raquel Welch strikes any false note. Otherwise, Tortilla Soup is a real chef's special.