“Tortilla Soup”, a remake of Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”, seems more concern with giving its characters smart-ass things to say rather than actually giving them something believable to do. Perhaps the writers of “Soup” realized that, compared to Lee’s films, their own movie would come up short. Thus, the characters are given dialogue that borders on triteness in an attempt to make them “more American” or perhaps “less Taiwanese”. (Lee’s movie was about a Taiwanese family in Taiwan, whereas “Soup” is about a Mexican-American family in the U.S.)
The fact is, “Tortilla Soup” follows Lee’s original so faithfully one can’t help but wonder what is the point of remaking it at all. Hector Elizondo (“How High”) plays the father who is losing his taste buds, which isn’t a good thing for a master chef who runs a restaurant. Jacqueline Obradors (“El Diablo”) is the middle daughter Carmen, a successful businesswoman who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps, if he would only realize this and relent his role as head of household to her.
Elizabeth Pena (“Lone Star”) plays the oldest daughter Leticia, who is careening towards a life of loneliness. Leticia is awkward and introverted, but that changes when she meets fellow teacher Orlando (Paul Rodriguez). The youngest daughter is Maribel (Tamara Mello), a self-centered brat who doesn’t fully appreciate what she has, and seeks to “find herself” with a co-worker’s ex-boyfriend. Constance Marie is neighbor Yolanda, and Raquel Welch plays Yolanda’s eccentric mother, a hussy with a Spanish accent.
If you’ve seen “Eat Drink Man Woman”, then you’ve seen “Tortilla Soup”. The absence of Taiwanese culture and the presence of Mexican-American heritage have little to no affect on the proceedings. And in truth, it shouldn’t, because both movies are based on the universal theme of family and the turmoil that exists within every single one. In those ways, “Soup” matches well with Lee’s version, even if “Soup” falls into that “a bunch of women trashes a room and sing and dance in order to prove their ‘womanness'” nonsense that so many Hollywood films are fond of.
Where “Soup” makes its biggest mistake is failing to have faith in its audience. Some scenes betray the movie’s climactic twist and a lot of Lee’s subtlety has given way to obviousness. For example, longing glances between characters lasts too long and you would have to be blind not to know what’s going on before the big twist. Also, an important subplot involving Leticia, Carmen, and a man from Leticia’s past is excised completely, thus denying the movie of the sharp edge that made the original so unpredictable and the characters so real.
As a remake, “Soup” comes across as too tame, too lighthearted and too afraid to take chances. It’s a movie about a Latino family, but it could just as well be another WASPy Hollywood group. With acting styles being so vastly different between the two continents, it’s unfair to compare the skills of “Soup’s” cast with that of Lee’s. Most of the women do a fairly decent job, although Tamara Mello overplays her hand and comes across as cartoonish. Jacqueline Obradors and Elizabeth Pena both do excellent jobs as the older daughters, while Hector Elizondo proves he has what it takes to be a leading man, and someone should give him more chances already.
The surprise comes from comedian Paul Rodriguez, who does a dramatic turn here. Although his character is not supposed to be comedic, Rodriguez ends up offering the film most of its laughs when he meets Elizondo’s character for the first time. I’ve been told that Raquel Welch steals the show, but I don’t see it. On the other hand, the understated turn by the lovely Constance Marie is dead on the mark.
Some may question why I am comparing “Tortilla Soup” to “Eat Drink Man Woman” on so many levels. The fact is, if you didn’t want people to compare your movie, don’t adapt it so faithfully from the source material. And oh yeah, how about choosing a film that isn’t so universally respected next time.
MarÃa Ripoll (director) / Ramon Men’ndez, Tom Musca, Vera Blasi (screenplay)
CAST: Hector Elizondo …. Martin Naranjo
Elizabeth Pena …. Leticia Naranjo
Jacqueline Obradors …. Carmen Naranjo
Tamara Mello …. Maribel Naranjo
Constance Marie …. Yolanda
Raquel Welch …. Hortensia