Yummy Film Celebrates Family
It never fails. Whenever we go out to eat, my husband asks, "Which Italian or Mexican restaurant will it be tonight?" Both of us enjoy the spicy cuisine of these two cultures much more than the blandness of our own English/Irish cooking. After leaving the film Big Night, which showed an Italian master chef preparing all kinds of delicious dishes, we rushed to the nearest Italian café and gorged ourselves on spaghetti primavera. We had a similar hungry feeling watching Tortilla Soup, only this time for the yummy Latino food served up by Hector Elizondo. As a retired chef who’s lost his sense of taste, Elizondo’s character must depend on someone else to let him know if everything is seasoned just right. How I would love that job!
Elizondo (The Princess Diaries) gets his first starring film role just right too. I found him totally believable and charming as the single father of three adult daughters who still live at home. His caring glances at each young woman exude warmth, even when he’s sighing with exasperation at many of their actions, including use of "Spanglish" at the dinner table. "English or Spanish --- one or the other," he admonishes them. Everything about Elizondo says "gentleman" in this gem of a movie. Concern for his family, for his restaurant partner, even for the children in his neighborhood comes through clear as a bell. I began to think of this creative chef as a real person --- one I wanted as a friend.
In fact, I wish I knew his three daughters too. As played by Elizabeth Peňa (Lone Star), the oldest one seemed the most interesting to me. I’m amazed at the way she combined repressed sexuality, religious zealotry, and comic reactions into one fascinating character. Peňa’s surprised, then eager, expressions upon receiving a series of mysterious love poems are priceless. For her terrific work here, Peňa goes on my short list of the year’s best supporting performers.
Portraying the other two daughters, Jacqueline Obradors (Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo) and Tamara Mello (She’s All That) also drew me into their struggles for independence from a beloved, but old-fashioned, father. The glamorous Obradors yearns to be a chef, not the high-powered business executive of her father’s dreams. Mello, a teenage dynamo, would like to see the world before going off to college. Watching all three siblings start breaking plates in the kitchen, I knew they were ready to make some changes. Little did I suspect their father’s life would change too, and more drastically. After meeting gold-digger Raquel Welch, the mother of his daughters’ lovely friend (Constance Marie from Selena), Elizondo’s character re-evaluates his plans for the future and surprises everyone with his decision.
In a highly unsympathetic role, Welch (Kansas City Bomber) dares to make fun of her sexy image. Now a senior citizen, she still looks great, especially dancing with Elizondo. I was afraid Welch might go too far over the top in a couple of instances, but she stopped just short of that, even in one outrageous fainting scene.
For me, funnyman Paul Rodriguez (Born in East L.A.) appears too infrequently in films, so I was pleased to see him cast as one of the daughter’s boyfriends in Tortilla Soup. I still chuckle thinking about his first meeting with Elizondo. Trying to entice the perfectionist chef to a baseball game, he says, "We could share corn dogs and sodas." Relief shines on Rodriguez’s face when Elizondo replies, "You take care of the tickets and I’ll take care of the food."
Because I missed seeing Eat Drink Man Woman, the 1994 Chinese version of this film, I’m not sure how Tortilla Soup measures up to it. Still, I can’t imagine the original being any better than this wonderful American adaptation.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and rated "PG-13" for sexual content.)