Since Ang Lee is a truly international director, it is not surprising that his 1994 Oscar-nominated “Eat Drink Man Woman” makes the smoothest of transitions from Taipei to East Los Angeles as “Tortilla Soup.” The story of a long-widowed father, a master chef, needing to let go of his three grown daughters is a universal theme, and the common patriarchal traditions of Chinese and Latino cultures make for a good fit.
Director Maria Ripoli and adapters Vera Blasi, Tom Musca and Ramon Menendez honor the strength, wisdom and humor of their source but imbue “Tortilla Soup” with a life of its own. This Samuel Goldwyn Films release isn’t just wonton warmed over.
Some quick establishing shots situate the movie in East L.A., but the handsome, sprawling hacienda of Martin (Hector Elizondo) looks more Brentwood than Boyle Heights. No matter, Martin is a hard-working man of great talent, and it figures that the impressive restaurant he runs with his partner and best friend, Gomez (Julio Oscar Mechoso), would enable him to afford such a notable residence wherever it happens to be.
All three of his daughters still live under his spacious roof. But at the family’s ritual Sunday dinner, the sleekly beautiful Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), a hotshot business executive, announces that she has made a down payment on a Playa del Rey condo not yet constructed. Inevitably, Martin smarts at not being consulted, but Carmen points out that he wouldn’t have approved anyway. His youngest daughter, Maribel (Tamara Mello), is a high school senior eager to get out from under the parental roof, especially since she’s met a handsome youth from Brazil (Nikolai Kinski, son of the late Klaus Kinski). Both Carmen and Maribel needle their sister Letitia (Elizabeth Pena), a witty but drab high school science teacher who appears doomed to spinsterhood.
In the course of the film, which with affectionate humor evokes the constancy of change and the inescapability of mortality, father and daughters will learn a lot about themselves and one another. Carmen might well have eagerly followed in her father’s footsteps, but Martin encouraged her to go for her MBA, determined that no daughter of his would ever have to make so much as a tortilla to earn her living. In her perfectly normal desire for independence and the time and space to discover what she wants to do with her life, Maribel could never imagine that she could at heart be so much like her father. And as for Letitia, what about the school’s friendly new baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez)?
At the same time, family friend Yolanda (Constance Marie) is descended upon by her eternal glamour-girl mother, Hortensia (Raquel Welch), a shameless sex kitten who happens to be between husbands and casts her eye upon Martin.
“Tortilla Soup” is as tasty and nourishing as one of Martin’s finest meals (which were prepared for the movie by Border Grill and Ciudad’s Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger). The film’s ensemble cast is headed with understated humor and authority by Elizondo and shows to special advantage Pena’s droll gifts as a comedian. Welch sails into view as spectacular-looking as ever, and she easily conveys the humor in the affected Hortensia, a husband hunter so flashy and obvious--to everybody but herself--as to be endearing. Obradors and Mello are as skilled as they are lovely, and Rodriguez and Kinski make appealing suitors. “Tortilla Soup” is worth sipping.
MPAA-rated: PG-13, for sexual content. Times guidelines: The occasional sly sexual references should not offend family audiences.
Hector Elizondo: Martin
Jacqueline Obradors: Carmen
Elizabeth Pena: Letitia
Tamara Mello: Maribel
Raquel Welch: Hortensia
A Samuel Goldwyn Films presentation. Director Maria Ripoli. Producer John Bard Manulis. Executive producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Screenplay Tom Musca & Ramon Menendez and Vera Blasi; Inspired by the film “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet. Editor Andy Blumenthal. Music Bill Conti. Costumes Ileane Meltzer. Production designer Alicia Maccarone. Art director John Mott. Set decorator Julieann Getman. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.