A Chicano cover version of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Tortilla Soup mixes Food Network money shots with the dregs of King Lear, aiming for what the script helpfully calls “a beautiful mess.” The adjective is unwarranted. The iron chef in this indifferent update is Martin Naranjo (understated Hector Elizondo), an anosmic widower who rules over his kitchen and his three daughters. Despite his inability to taste and smell (and an eventual cardiac scare), he retains the old routines, growing backyard produce and righting a dessert disaster at his old partner’s restaurant with the aplomb of a trauma-ward surgeon.
The three sisters adore their caring but reserved dad, at the same time straining at the apron strings. The eldest (Elizabeth Peña) is a chemistry teacher, born-again but smitten by the school’s new baseball coach; his youngest (perky Tamara Mello) is a college-bound music buff who wants to find herself, with the help of a starry-eyed boy from Brazil. Middle child Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is the Cordelia stand-in, a beautiful though beau-less businesswoman whose culinary leanings have been nixed by Martin’s disdain for fusion (“mutts”) and his own ambitions for her future. Downplaying the cross-cultural angle (the SoCal locale is oddly anonymous), Tortilla Soup feels instantly dated, distinguishable from EDMW only by some attractive close-ups of avocado.
In a nifty bit of deduction, Freud conflated Lear’s three daughters with the three caskets (of gold, silver, and lead) in The Merchant of Venice, decoding Cordelia’s silence as the inexorable call of death (“the doomed man,” he wrote, “insists on hearing how much he is loved”). The elegance of this endgame—solus rex, with a trio of heiresses presumptive—might suffice for Kurosawa or Jane Smiley, but feel-good retreads need to dispense with pesky mortality. The result here, ironically, is more discomfiting. Martin not only receives (quite literally) a perfect bill of health, but renews his libidinal license: Dodging the reaper, he humiliates an age-appropriate potential mate (Raquel Welch, emerging from under her Legally Blonde cuke slices) by marrying her divorcée daughter—herself the mother of a girl who dotes on him. His own spawn uniformly applauds the May-September union, and when his new bride announces she’s pregnant with a girl (in truth, an ultrasonic uncertainty), the film freezes in a happy blur, oblivious to its moral irresolution.