The romantic comedy Tortilla Soup has charm but needs more stew
Tortilla Soup is a kind of Mexican-American remake of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. As a romantic comedy in a contemporary ethnic mode, it has flavor and charm, but its recipes for character drama are not as nourishing as its gourmet airs might lead you to believe.
The story revolves around a Mexican-American chef (Hector Elizondo) and his three devoted daughters, each of whom has reached early adulthood and none of whom has yet broken away from the Los Angeles-area home in which their widowed father has raised them. But much of that, of course, is about to change.
Schoolteacher Letitia (Elisabeth Peña) is a born-again Christian who has no love life until the new baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez) catches her eye. Fledgling businesswoman Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) has an active sex life and a growing set of ambitions. Teenager Maribel (Tamara Mello) is fresh out of high school and hot to move in with the Brazilian lothario she’s just met.
Papa, meanwhile, presides contentedly over the family’s customary Sunday-night dinners and leaves no doubt about his reluctance to cut the patriarchal apron strings. Plus, he has an extended family that includes the staff at the restaurant from which he is semi-retired as manager and a neighboring single mother whose own flamboyant mom (Raquel Welch) is aggressively angling for his affections.
The gentle, understated macho of Elizondo’s paterfamilias provides the calm at the center of the various emotional storms he helps make possible, and his bellwether performance throws an embracing loop over the variously vivacious performances of Peña, Obradors and Mello. And he alone among the performers undercuts both the cuteness in characterization and the casual cruelty in some of the moments of comedy that occasionally mar the film.
The overall result is a nice enough comedy-drama about spirited people getting on with their lives. Unfortunately, Tortilla Soup is better with food than it is with character, and big chunks of it look like little more than advertisements for a comfortable life style.