Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Come for the tasty performances, stay for the food porn

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Thanksgiving is upon us, so let’s gorge ourselves on films about food.

Tortilla Soup (2001)

There’s nothing at stake in Tortilla Soup, which is striking when one considers that the film passingly references every fear haunting American life: death, aging, loneliness, the revolt of children, the potential loss of physical competency, and confusion of racial and national identity. Director Maria Ripoll regards these issues as metaphorical garnishes for the soup that is her film: They’re for superficial texture, but the pervading recipe is unchallenging and old-fashioned. This square-ness works in Tortilla Soup’s favor.

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The film owns its triviality, offering audiences what they want from a low-stress relationship farce: the comfort of camaraderie shared between actors, staged with little melodramatic fuss. This freedom from narrative tension isn’t only peddled by rom-coms; it’s also the primary pleasure of the foodie movie, which is why the genres often co-mingle so easily, as they do in Tortilla Soup, a remake of Ang Lee’s less genteel Eat Drink Man Woman.

In Ripoll’s version, a celebrated chef and widower, Martin (Héctor Elizondo), struggles to keep track of the shifting lives of his daughters, Leticia (Elizabeth Peña), Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), and Maribel (Tamara Mello). The women still live with Martin, who holds traditional extended Mexican family values, which Leticia refuses to question, to her prolonged torment and romantic dissatisfaction. Carmen’s a corporate something-or-other so as to please her father, who wishes for her to transcend his working-class roots, though she’s a talented chef in her own right who yearns to follow in the family business. Quite a bit younger than her sisters, Maribel hopes to find herself and potentially skip college.

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These subplots circle one another, evaporating like cotton candy on the tongue. What matters is the considerable food porn. Ripoll honors that womb-like feeling of containment and safety that a family kitchen can provide, especially over a holiday, as sauces are simmering and dishes marinating. There are many loving close-ups of Martin’s hands as he grills peppers, chops cactus, dry rubs chicken and fish, or slices squid. Every day of the week, Martin and his daughters attempt to have dinner, with a running joke made of its reliable disruption by complications. Each dinner is a lovingly ludicrous multiple-course meal that would appear to cost hundreds of dollars to produce. One can practically smell these gorgeous dishes.

It’s also refreshing to see Elizondo and Peña so unusually spotlighted as leads, rather than as colorful supporting players. Both exude a powerful sense of decency that grounds the fantasy in something approximating emotional reality—particularly Peña, who brings to her role an awareness of longing and insecurity that threatens to steer Tortilla Soup into darker realms. But the film remains soothingly slight, like chicken soup, or most of the dishes that one’s likely to warmly anticipate this week.

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Availability: Tortilla Soup is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.

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