Locking in the freshness

Movie: Tortilla Soup

Our Rating: 3.00

Exotic, ethnic foods sizzle on a stove. Raven-haired lovers lock limbs in a passionate embrace. A Mexican father fights to keep old-world customs alive in his household.

The credit "inspired by the film 'Eat Drink Man Woman'" barely begins to explain the leftover flavor of "Tortilla Soup," an extended food-is-life allegory in which every dramatic course has been put before us countless times in the past. But with the great Hector Elizondo as our papi figure, we can't complain too loudly that we have to eat this stuff again.

Elizondo's Martin Naranjo is a California widower with rigid notions of proper behavior. "No Spanglish at home!" he admonishes his three grown-up daughters, whose hopes of approval depend on their adherence to his con- servative views. Fuddy-duddy oldest child Leticia (Elizabeth Peña) is quietly obedient, which is good. Corporate-climbing middle kid Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is an overachiever, which is good, but her employment opportunities may take her far from the nest, which is bad. As for Maribel (Tamara Mello), their free spirit of a baby sister ... well, the less said, the better.

The Sunday meals Martin prepares give the girls cause to whisper that their dad, a professional chef, is slowly losing his sense of taste. This plot thread is too underdeveloped to be of much consequence, but Elizondo can look noble even with the weight of a half-heartedly scripted world on his shoulders. The women are almost as effective -- particularly Peña, who hones in on the tender humor of Leticia's tentative progression from school-marm spinsterhood to hot-blooded amor. Even Paul Rodriguez, more comedian than thespian, is impossible not to like as Leticia's baseball-coaching suitor.

Whatever the movie lacks in finesse, it makes up for as an overdue assemblage of Hispanic talent. Elizondo and his castmates obviously relish every opportunity to break bread together on the screen Ð�?well, almost every opportunity. We can almost feel them wince as one whenever a scene is invaded by Raquel Welch, who plays a much-married, much-divorced Latina matron with designs on Martin. The role is intended as comic relief, but comedy is far too much to ask of Welch, who (to put it nicely) can't act her way out of a soft taco shell. Of Bolivian descent, she nonetheless displays all the ethnicity of Joyce Van Patten. The major weight she has gained turns her attempt at a saucy, south-of-the-border sashay into embarrassing proof that she now has trouble completing all but the most elementary physical movements. Adios, señora.