tortilla soup (2002)

director: maria ripoll

hector elizondo, elizabeth pena, rachel welch, jacqueline obradors

Hollywood's hunger for material often reaches its most risible height in the practice of "adapting" successful foreign films to American locales and casts. As a rule, it rarely works, and the "improved" version never manages to inspire followings in audiences over the long run, rendering the whole exercise apparently pointless.

Before Ang Lee directed Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his reputation was based on little films like Eat Drink Man Woman, about a star chef and widower with three pretty but unruly daughters. Lee is probably the most talented director working today, and the success of Eat Drink Man Woman is due to the rare empathy he has for his characters, a director's skill that can't be learned or taught, never mind adapted.

As a result, Maria Ripoll's Tortilla Soup has the altogether unhappy feel of walking through an inadequate renovation of a well-loved room or house, full of pointless additions and cheap modern finishes. It's a shame, because the cast  -- including Hector Elizondo as the father and Elizabeth Pena as his oldest daughter, Leticia -- is decent enough, and the setting -- L.A.'s chicano middle class -- hardly overused. 

The script, however, is awful, full of trite dialogue and sitcom gags, as well as a plot twist that tries to be shocking and only succeeds in being inexplicable. That this plot twist tries to make a villain out of Rachel Welch's character -- a vain and nosy widow with her eye on Elizondo -- only ends up looking like desperate scapegoating; Welch's performance is particularly grating, probably not intentionally, and she's discarded with what seems like unseemly haste. 

The food, however, is fantastic. In an attempt to harness the absurd "gourmet film" trend begun with Babette's Feast, and more recent films like Chocolat and Woman on Top, director Ripoll credits the food and menu creators before the cast. Lovingly shot and served, the traditional and fusion Mexican cuisine -- plated and served but, unbelievably, never eaten by the characters -- is truly mouthwatering, but leaves one with the frustrating sensation of leaving the film disappointed but ravenous.