Who knew the Chinese-language “Eat Drink Man Woman” would have an encore as an Hispanic-American family comedy aiming at heartland auds? Well, actually, Sam Goldwyn did, when he snapped up remake rights along with the distribbing of Ang Lee’s offshore hit. Thanks to a perfectly blended ensemble led by Hector Elizondo, in his best screen role to date, “Tortilla Soup” is a warm-blooded winner with equal emphasis placed on taste buds and heartstrings. Set to open in August, this gently crowd-pleasing PG-13 pic should platform nicely out of Latino centers into public at large.
Well-tuned retelling about a star chef has an intriguing history. Luis Valdez wrote an early draft of the Americanized version, and Lee supported project from the start. Finished screenplay hews close to the “Eat Drink” scenario, with tasty SoCal details added by Tom Musca and Ramon Menendez, who’ve both helmed pics about Hispanic L.A. A woman’s touch was added by Brazil’s Vera Blasi, who also went the family-and-food route in her “Woman on Top.” The late entry was Spanish helmer Maria Ripoll, who forgoes the obtrusive magic-realism that made her “Twice Upon a Yesterday” such a hard slog and sticks to keeping the family dynamic clicking, to very good effect.
That mustn’t have been too difficult, given the grouping of patrician Elizondo, as Martin Naranjo, the veteran chef whose sense of taste is failing, with the three thesps who play his divergent offspring. Indie veteran Elizabeth Pena, who usually plays ornery mavericks, is here the repressed older sister, Letitia, a school teacher and pious Christian.Maribel, the youngest — played by spicy, smart Tamara Mello — is plagued by self-doubt, even though she’s the most assimilated. The pic’s breakthrough performance comes from sleek Jacqueline Obradors, as Carmen, the powder-keg middle sister. She most closely reflects daddy’s temperament and his flair for cooking, although Carmen has translated his striving for security into a successful career as a corporate consultant. When she’s offered a glamorous job in Barcelona, it throws the motherless clan into a tizzy.
Further complicating things are Maribel’s chance encounter with a handsome Brazilian student (Klaus Kinski scion Nikolai Kinski, sporting an iffy accent but a lot of relaxed charm) and Letitia’s growing fixation on a goofy yet sincere baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez), whom her students have set up with a batch of fake love letters. Also sitting at the family table are a timid single mom (Constance Marie), her young daughter and her obnoxious mother (Raquel Welch), who has set her sights on Martin.
These elements are stirred with liberal amounts of Latin music and to-die-for food preparation. Script, while not terribly deep, is admirably restrained and realistic. Still, the helmer can’t resist adding a few “Big Chill”-type Movie Moments, often with the sisters dancing in the kitchen, aided by salsa of both kinds. Welch reps the only over-the-top ingredient.
Xavier Perez Grobet’s confident lensing, invisibly transferred from vid to 35mm, is clean and unfussy. The recipes, shot separately and all-too-memorably by Marian Sanchez de Antunano, are courtesy of celeb L.A. Mex mavens Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (known commercially as Too Hot Tamales), and “Soup” will surely be heated up by midsummer release of tie-in book and CD.
Tasty pic’s only critical stumbling block is sure to be comparisons with Lee’s original, which had a slightly more pungent tone; most auds aren’t up on their Taiwanese cinema, however. Easy to swallow is the decision to completely avoid issues of ethnic and economic conflict, making this genuine crowd-pleaser an utterly gang-and-drug-free look at Hispanic subculture. And it’s one that all families can relate to — especially at dinnertime.