A comedy to arouse your appetite!
The Ang Lee film Eat Drink Man Woman offered insight into a tight-knit Taiwanese family. The patriarch, a widower and gourmet chef, cooked splendid meals, while his three daughters threatened tradition with their work and love lives. Tortilla Soup aims to recapture the magic by remaking Lee's film, setting it within the context of traditional Hispanic-American culture. The film credits Lee, Hui-Ling Wan, and James Schamus' screenplay for the basis of this 2001 theatrical release.
Facts of the Case
East Los Angeleno Martin Naranjo (Hector Elizondo) is a semi-retired gourmet chef who tries to run his family like his restaurant, to no avail. With three fiery daughters it's a tall order, and sure enough, Leticia (Elizabeth Pena) is sexually torn, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is moving out, and the youngest, Maribel (Tamara Mello), is rethinking college. In the meantime, a friend of the family brings her pushy mother Hortensia (Raquel Welch) to visit, who instantly has eyes for Martin. What to do?
I liked Eat Drink Man Woman; its tightlipped façade occasionally gave way to heightened emotion, reflecting its characters who act out despite their traditional culture. This aspect doesn't work in Tortilla Soup, since the Naranjo family, however traditional their Hispanic background, live in the loose hedonism of America.
The conflict between this culture and their background isn't explored clearly. Instead, as the sisters bicker, fight, and find themselves, we get soap-operatic dialogue and predictable situations. Nothing's left to mystery except for a couple deliberate plot twists that seem thrown in just to keep us on the edge of our seats—and providing us with no emotional context with which to appreciate them.
The three sisters of Tortilla Soup all have their own battles to fight, just like their father. Schoolteacher Leticia, the oldest, is a puritan who probably hasn't had sex in a decade; naturally, when a baseball coach at her school catches her eye, she has to have the requisite "makeover" to lure him. Luckily, Elizabeth Pena is an actress who knows how to elevate material, and her sly wit really sparkles beyond the stereotype of her character. Carmen, the middle child, is a successful MBA grad lured to greener business pastures, while pursuing an empty sex life. But all she REALLY wants to do is cook! Dad doesn't want her making tortillas for a living. Um, even though his tortilla-making bought them a phat house in East LA and allowed him to retire, apparently, at the age of 60 or so. Allllll-righty. And lastly, Maribel, played with vigor by the cute Tamara Mello, is the rebel, trying to "find herself" while in the arms of a handsome young traveler from Brazil (Nikolai Kinski). Part of finding herself is impulsively moving in with him (a BIG no-no) and in turn driving him crazy, proving herself unlikable to him and audience alike. Mello's skill as an actress manages to salvage the character towards the end.
Through all of this, we have to deal with Raquel Welch's bizarrely over-the-top portrayal of Hortensia. There is no subtle character work underneath Hortensia's flamboyance; she should have been in a sitcom, not a family drama. Oh well, Raquel, we'll always have One Million Years B.C.…
And may I use this review as a call for a moratorium on "edgy" French-New-Wave-esque jump cuts? They're used here more than once—and even once is a crime. A warm fuzzy family soap opera does not necessitate a film technique more appropriate to the visceral Amores Perros or old-school 400 Blows. Maria Ripoll does a fabulous job photographing the preparation of all of Martin's meals—a delight for gourmands like myself—but in all other aspects, she needs to find her own style.
That said, her director of photography knew his stuff—Xavier Perez Grobet's lighting and photography is excellent. Overall, this is a nice transfer to DVD: colors are true, subtle, and creamy. Lights and darks are evenly blended with edge enhancement and grain kept to the bare minimum. Tortilla Soup is presented in both full frame and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is mixed well, with nice use of back speakers (I love it when I hear birds chirping over my right shoulder) and good balance between dialogue and background noise. There was no distortion of hiss heard anytime during the feature. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English and Spanish.
Not much in the way of special features, though—and just think of the cool documentary they coulda come up with, leading us from Ang Lee's Eat Drink to the inception of this clumsy, though intriguing, remake. Aspects of Taiwanese culture vs. Hispanic culture could all have been examined. Alas, we only get interactive menus.
I actually enjoyed watching Tortilla Soup. However, I don't think it is a great film. Instead, it's a glorified version of a good soap opera. Predictable plot, heard-it-all-before dialogue, and a couple out-of-left-field plot twists that take the movie on a road to nowhere. The actors—particularly Pena and Elizondo—and a good transfer to DVD at least make Tortilla Soup watchable.
Come on, with a great predecessor like Eat Drink Man Woman, how could this film lack so much spice? Sentenced to a year of eating at Taco Bell!
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