Martin Naranjo, the inflexible Hispanic chef-patriarch in Tortilla Soup, is a believer in cultural integrity and culinary tradition, and frowns on the Mexican-French-Carribean fusion dishes ("mutts," he calls them) concocted by his modern-thinking daughter Carmen.
Martin Naranjo probably wouldn’t approve of the movie he is
in: a Hollywoodized Latino-American
Tortilla Soup isn’t the delicacy that Eat Drink Man Woman was, nor does it compare with the exquisite meals prepared by the patriarchs of either film. But on the level of comfort food this remake is enjoyable enough, unless of course you’re a purist conoisseur like Martin. Watching it, I laughed out loud any number of times, and so did others in the theater.
Like the original Lee film, Tortilla Soup is an affectionate look at family life with all its foibles and difficulties, focusing particularly on the tensions between the home and the outside world. In the Naranjo household, such tensions tend to erupt during elaborate Sunday family dinners prepared by the widower Martin (Hector Elizondo in a solid performance) for his three grown daughters, who have yet to leave the nest.
These dinners are dangerous affairs. For one thing, Martin’s taste buds and sense of smell are failing him, and he may not be the chef he used to be. Also, sooner or later someone at the table will inevitably have an "announcement" to make, involving some new love interest, new apartment, new job that threatens the family’s shaky unity.
Martin loves his daughters, but the lavish meals he makes for them are the only way he knows to show it. The sisters, too, love him and one another, but in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — they are all constantly driving one another crazy. Why they all relate to one another this way isn’t hard to figure out, if you consider the way Martin and his deceased wife got along. "He only had one true love in his life," says eldest daughter Leticia (Elizabeth Peña). But Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) disagrees: "You call that love? All they did was bicker and fight." Letitia’s reply: "That’s how they loved each other."
Yet, compared with the original film, Tortilla Soup is less nuanced — and ultimately less critical and more accepting — concerning its characters’ failings. Where Eat Drink Man Woman was honest about the rough edges and dicey elements in its characters’ lives, Tortilla Soup wants too much to be a feel-good movie, and tries to smooth over anything problematic or uncomfortable.
For example, in both films all three daughters engage in some kind of sexual immorality. The middle daughter dallies with a "former" boyfriend in a non-relationship that is strictly sexual; the youngest moves in with a young man after bringing him home to meet the family; and the eldest (who is in both films a Fundamentalist-style Protestant) refrains from pleasures of the flesh until a sudden passionate affair that results in pregnancy (followed by marriage).
The difference is that Ang Lee’s film raises questions about the daughters’ behavior that Tortilla Soup never dreams of asking. Take the middle daughter: Although she considers herself a modern, liberated woman, and can even accept the unexpected engagement of her former-boyfriend/current-sex-partner to another woman, in Lee’s film she’s physically sickened when her playmate suggests that his upcoming marriage need not end their "friendship." Tortilla Soup omits this scene entirely, thereby failing to put the daughter’s "modern" lifestyle to the test in this way.
Lee’s film also casts the eldest daughter and her sudden affair in a less forgiving light, underscoring her emotional instability and neediness. A startling revelation about this daughter’s emotional history has been omitted from Tortilla Soup, and the affair itself has been smoothed out and made more (and therefore less) "acceptable."
Another layer of moral difficulty is added by Tortilla Soup’s nominally Catholic cultural milieu (Eat Drink Man Woman has no explicit religious context, except for the eldest daughter’s Protestantism). Of course Catholics and other Christians can commit the same sexual sins as other people; but it’s more troubling and scandalous when they do so, and even morally more serious. Tortilla Soup should have been more critical and questioning, not less, than Lee’s film, and the fact that it is less so makes it more problematic.
At the same time, nothing in Tortilla Soup amounts to an endorsement of the daughters’ choices, so it’s possible to look past this and enjoy the film’s modest virtues. For example, there’s Hector Elizondo, who’s always been so likable and reliable in supporting roles (most recently in The Princess Diaries) that audiences wished he had more screen time, and now does.
Elizondo is supported by generally likable, attractive costars, including beautiful Jacqueline Obradors as Carmen, cute Tamara Mello as young Maribel, and adorable little Marisabel García as April, the school-age daughter of divorced family friend Yolanda (Constance Marie). There’s also Yolanda’s flirtatious mother (Raquel Welch), who certainly considers herself one of the likable and attractive characters, and isn’t. (Some viewers may enjoy Welch’s comic turn as a manhunter coming on to Elizondo; others may find her whole subplot cruel and sour.)
And, of course, there’s the visual feast of the food itself, lovingly prepared, mouth-wateringly photographed. (The dishes were prepared by the hosts of the Food Network’s "Too Hot Tamales" show, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.)
Tortilla Soup echoes other food-themed films, including the exquisite Danish film Babette’s Feast (one of the fifteen films listed in the category of "Religion" on the Vatican film list) and the popular Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate, in using the preparation and consumption of food as a metaphor of and vehicle for life and love.
Another echo of Babette’s Feast can be seen in the figure of Leticia, Martin’s eldest daughter. Like the pious Puritan twin sisters in Babette’s Feast, Letitia loses herself in religious devotion, withdrawing not only from worldly pleasures, but also from life generally. Also like the sisters, Letitia is suspicious of Catholicism without really knowing much about it. "Catholics worship saints," she says. "Christians worship Christ. Christ was a Christian — not Catholic." She’s so clueless that she has no idea how to respond when another character ventures, "Honey, Christ was a Jew."
Note: Toward the end of Tortilla Soup is a scene in which Martin, dropping off one of his daughters at an airport, gives her a set of kitchen knives as a farewell present, adding, "You’d better put these in your bag; you’ll never get them past security." Like so many other things, this line has acquired an unexpected cultural resonance in light of the events of September 11; but of course the film was already long since in theaters at that time, and no deliberate reference to the tragedies was intended.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.