Anybody with siblings knows that, while birth order isn't the determining factor in how we develop, it certainly provides a convenient excuse for any number of undesirable character traits. The eldest child can be insufferably responsible and bossy, lording it over his or her younger siblings, or wild and crazy, unable to take the expectations of first-time parents harboring fantasies of perfection. The youngest child is resented by the older ones, who feel the baby of the family gets all the attention, while, in fact, youngest siblings often feel neglected and underappreciated. The middle child frequently assumes the role of peacemaker -- or else feels compelled to rebel against the next-older sibling.
Tortilla Soup isn't directly about birth order, but anyone with any experience in sharing toys, attention and uncomfortably long car rides on the way to dreaded family vacations will recognize some familiar personality types and situations. Directed by the Spanish-born María Ripoll, who is best known in this country for her English-language film Twice Upon a Yesterday, the film is about three adult sisters who still live at home with their widowed father, a professional chef, who demands that each of his daughters be present for Sunday dinner.
The eldest, Leticia Naranjo (Elizabeth Peña), is the antithesis of wild and crazy. Quiet, devout and rather awkward around men, she teaches chemistry at a local school, where she finds herself developing a crush on the baseball coach, a big, friendly bear of a man named Orlando (Paul Rodriquez), whom she mistakenly believes is sending her love letters. Maribel (Tamara Mello) is the cute, bouncy, youngest sister, who has just graduated from high school and is on her way to college, until she falls for Andy (Nikolai Kinski, son of Klaus) and decides that maybe her education can wait. At home, Maribel feels practically invisible, as if no one is interested in what she feels or thinks. Stuck in the middle is Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), whose somewhat rebellious spirit has been submerged in order to please her father. A successful businesswoman who got her MBA only because her dad felt she should, she has inherited her father's love and talent for cooking, something that he -- somewhat surprisingly -- does not encourage. Offered a lucrative job in Barcelona that her father obviously feels she should take, she is torn. Her heart clearly lies in the kitchen.
Martin Naranjo (Hector Elizondo) is somewhat of a curmudgeon. His life is cooking, whether at the restaurant where he works or at home, where he whips up exotic dishes just for the family. Martin loves his daughters but thinks he knows what is best for them. While he doesn't interfere too much in the lives of Leticia and Maribel, he frequently butts heads with Carmen, refusing to acknowledge how similar the two of them are in temperament.
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If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Tortilla Soup was "inspired by" director Ang Lee's 1994 movie Eat Drink Man Woman, which was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. The Chinese family is now a Latino family. While some of the characterizations are different in the new film -- particularly how the father is portrayed -- the plot is identical and the interfamily relationships are, too. Which just goes to show that when it comes to family dynamics, all cultures are equally challenged. Although this film is targeted at a Hispanic audience, it is an equal-opportunity story with archetypal characters and situations.
Lee's Chinese version played up the contrast between the father's traditional ways and the daughters' more modern sensibilities, which provided a nice undercurrent to the story. Here, Martin seems as Americanized as his daughters, eliminating a much-needed level of tension and filial guilt. Among the cast members, Obradors (Six Days, Seven Nights; Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo) stands out as Carmen, treating her character in a naturalistic and believable fashion. The subplot involving Leticia is conceived too broadly and the normally reliable Peña ends up playing her role for laughs. Elizondo, another accomplished actor, doesn't fare much better. He never creates a defined or particularly engaging character. Raquel Welch, not known for her acting chops, plays a randy neighbor with her sights set on Martin.
The real star of the film is the food, which is sliced, diced, shredded, rolled, sautéed and fricasseed to mouthwatering perfection. Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, co-owners of several Latin restaurants, authors of four cookbooks and celebrity chefs on the Food Network, designed the menus and oversaw the cooking.