It wasn’t a terrible idea to refashion Ang Lee’s 1994 Taiwanese family comedy-drama, “Eat Drink Man Woman,” into a piece about a Hispanic brood in sunny California, but as so often happens in such cases, the remake doesn’t manage to match the original. “Tortilla Soup” certainly isn’t indigestible, but by comparison to its more savory source, it’s considerably less than mouth-watering.
In the new version, Hector Elizondo plays Martin Naranjo, a chef who’s lost his sense of taste and so must depend on others to sample the dishes he prepares with such exquisite care. He’s also a widower who finds himself increasingly estranged from the three grown daughters with whom he regularly has a family meal. The eldest, the ironically-named Letitia (Elizabeth Pena), is a repressed teacher with a religious streak. The next, Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), is a volatile businesswoman. And the youngest, Maribel (Tamara Mello) is a girl feeling a need to break free of what she sees as the stultifying traditional atmosphere of the Naranjo homestead. Things get complicated when Carmen debates whether to take a job in Spain, Letitia finds herself attracted to a peculiar but sweet baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez) and Maribel propels herself into a romance with a charming Brazilian exchange student (Nikolai Kinski). To make matters even more tense, Martin is pursued by the aggressive mother (Raquel Welch) of a young single mother (Constance Marie) who’s an old family friend, and the buddy (Julio Oscar Mechoso) who owns the restaurant where he works suddenly falls ill.
“Tortilla Soup” certainly has many of the ingredients for success. In Elizondo it has an actor who’s at the very top of his form, and who gives a performance of considerable grace and refinement. Pena, Obradors and Mello are all excellent too, with Obradors standing out, especially in the later reels, when her own penchant for cooking is revealed. And Rodriguez and Kinski both avoid the exaggeration that could easily have marred their performances (and of which the former has in the past been guilty). The cinematography of Xavier Perez Grobet is very nice, capturing the lushness of the Naranjo home beautifully and making the outdoor sequences lush and eye-filling. (Mention must also be made of Marian Sanchez de Antunano, who’s credited for the “food camera” and who does a fine job of making the numerous kitchen sequences quite delectable–just as similar scenes were in pictures like “Babette’s Feast” and “Like Water for Chocolate”). There’s also an effervescent music score to enjoy.
But the recipe doesn’t entirely live up to the promise of these elements. The direction by Maria Ripoll isn’t nearly as clumsy as her helming of “Twice Upon a Yesterday,” which laid on the sense of magic with a trowel, but it still doesn’t have quite the mixture of lightness and tartness that would have brought out the best in the material. What one ends up noticing is how calculated the scenario is, rather that closing one’s eyes to the obvious contrivances. Ripoll also permits Welch to get by with a performance so shrill and heavy-handed that it deflates the mood every time she appears (which is all too often). One can well understand why Elizondo instinctively recoils from the woman, but the point should have been made more subtly.
In sum, “Tortilla Soup” will probably satisfy if you haven’t seen Lee’s precursor, but if you have, Ripoll’s effort will seem like a fast-food substitute for what was originally a fine dinner.