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Menudo Schmenudo

All the basic ingredients of director Ang Lee‘s understated 1994 domestic comedy, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman -- a family in generational flux, the culinary rituals that help hold it together and a four-course love story -- have made it into director Maria Ripoll’s remake, Tortilla Soup. Ripoll and writers Tom Musca, Ramon Menendez and Vera Blasi have added a few touches of their own: They‘ve shifted the setting from Taipei to East Los Angeles, and the film’s all-important cuisine is now Latin-American rather than Cantonese. But almost everything else -- plot, dialogue, visual style -- has been lifted wholesale, and the result is about as appetizing as microwave flan.

As in the original film, the story revolves around a widowed master chef (Hector Elizondo) who commands his three live-at-home daughters (Jacqueline Obradors, Elizabeth Peña and Tamara Mello) to regular Sunday dinners. Always a riot of intoxicating dishes -- cactus salad, suckling pig, tortilla soup -- these family get-togethers invariably descend into a riot of domestic chaos as each of the daughters seizes the moment to assert her defiance of Dad. All in turn have decided it‘s time for career, for love, to see the world or just to leave the nest. In the film’s single underplayed comic touch, Ripoll (as did Lee) pays lingering, sensuous attention to the father‘s preparation of the bountiful Sunday menus, only here the family’s discord keeps anyone from actually finishing a meal.

Ripoll takes a fast-food approach with hardly a sweet or sour moment. Her film runs faster than Lee‘s two hours, but Ripoll hasn’t trimmed the story‘s fat; she’s just cut out its heart. Within minutes of Tortilla Soup‘s first dinner-table flare-up, after Carmen (Obradors) announces she’s moving out, the sisters are playfully dancing in the kitchen as if the family‘s stability hadn’t just been shaken to the core. It‘s a reconciliation which, for all its good cheer, plays false. Ripoll wants us to take these characters seriously, but never puts anything on the line. It is, however, Tortilla Soup’s cultural transposition that feels most phony. Where Lee brings depth and subtle observation to his middle-class ensemble piece, Ripoll has simply added a thin Latino glaze. (Appropriately, the food is by “acclaimed celebrity chefs” Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.) She whets the bland appetites of the art-house audience with a little cultural spice, but has forgotten to add the soul.

A family at the crossroads is also at the center of director Syd Macartney‘s A Love Divided, only the roads don’t meet over the dinner table but in an ideological minefield. Set in rural Ireland in 1957, this BBC production tells the real-life story of Sheila Cloney (Orla Brady), a Protestant woman in a mixed marriage who defied her husband (Liam Cunningham) and the Catholic Church when she refused to send her children to a Catholic school. After threats from her local priest (Tony Doyle), she fled the country, children in tow, and touched off a sectarian firestorm that quickly engulfed the nation. Brady narrates all this in a voice-over that lets us in on Sheila‘s overwhelming fear and isolation. Unfortunately, hers is the only fully drawn character in a film in which every other character is a brute or a victim (with Sheila’s husband wavering between the two), in an all-too-familiar world of intolerance, mob violence and religious hypocrisy. In the end, Macartney and screenwriter Stuart Hepburn decide that love conquers all, which may have been the way it happened but doesn‘t leave the film with much going on.