Anyone with any experience sharing toys, attention and uncomfortably long car rides on the way to dreaded family vacations will recognize some familiar personality types and situations in Tortilla Soup. Directed by the Spanish-born Maráa Ripoll, best known in this country for her English-language film Twice Upon a Yesterday, Soup 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.
Quiet, devout and rather awkward around men, eldest daughter Leticia Naranjo (Elizabeth Peña) 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), the cute, bouncy youngest sister, 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. Stuck in the middle is Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), whose rebellious spirit has been submerged 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 — surprisingly — does not encourage. Offered a lucrative job in Barcelona that her father obviously feels she should take, she is torn.
Martin Naranjo (Hector Elizondo) is something 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 his family. Martin loves his daughters but is a typical father who 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.
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-American family is now a Latino-American family. While some of the characterizations are different in the new film — particularly how the father is portrayed — the plot and relationships are identical. Which just goes to show that when it comes to family dynamics, all cultures are equally challenged.
Lee’s Chinese version played up the contrast between the father’s traditional ways and the daughters’ more modern sensibilities, which provided the story’s soft undercurrent. Here, Martin seems as Americanized as his daughters, eliminating a much-needed level of tension and filial guilt.
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.