When the enchanted crab is the most appealing character in a movie, you know you're in some serious metaphoric hot water. But the crustacean in question is just one of the truly baffling elements of "Simply Irresistible," a featherweight romance about magic, cooking and the transformative power of dynamite eclairs.
If this all sounds a little familiar, it's because "Irresistible" borrows heavily in setup -- if not execution -- from 1992's sublime sleeper hit "Like Water for Chocolate." In both, quiet, semi-mopey young women discover they can infuse what they feel into what they cook, with startling results. But something seems to have been lost in the translation. While the earlier film had all the tender charm of a cherished folk tale, "Simply Irresistible" has instead side-crawling sand dwellers.
The human lead this time out is a perky New Yorker named Amanda Shelton ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Sarah Michelle Gellar, who retreads again later this year in a Gen-X "Dangerous Liaisons" called "Cruel Intentions"). Amanda is struggling to keep her family's venerable Tribeca restaurant afloat, but rent increases and her stunning lack of culinary acumen have left her eatery on the skids. She's about to toss in the kitchen towel when she meets a weird fishmonger (Christopher Durang, in what amounts to the Great Kazoo role) at the green market who persuades her to buy his very special crab. Apparently, the magic beans stand was closed that day.
Empowered by her wriggling, snapping bucket of sea life, Amanda trots home, unearths her dead mother's diamond earrings and is instantly transformed into a woman of 10 times the talent -- if still only a quarter of the land mass -- of the Two Fat Ladies. Cut to that cute little crab throwing us a knowing look of satisfaction, which is no easy feat considering his eyes are on stalks.
But Amanda's newfound culinary artistry is just the tip of the iceberg, and it's just a matter of time before things start to get really strange. After all, you can't hang a whole movie on the miracle of finally being able to crack an egg one-handed. Soon, vanilla-scented fogs are billowing around like it's incense-and-folk night in the girls' dormitory, paper airplanes are careening aerodynamically in a manner that would do Cupid proud and the entire cast is rolling their eyes into the backs of their heads and making exaggerated yummy noises. Amanda's ardor infects all those who eat her bewitched eclairs, causing an outbreak of kissy face in a department store elevator. And when her teardrops -- along with a hefty dose of Maybelline -- splash into the soup, widespread sobbing ensues. Unfortunately, the movie never bothers to explain how or why Amanda suddenly gets her knack -- is the magic coming from her friend the fish guy, her Dungeness fairy godparent, her mom's earrings or her simple epiphany that she really wants to be a great cook? The only thing that does seem certain is that Amanda's customers had better pray she never takes a notion to bake when she's royally pissed off.
Glaring logic holes aside, "Simply Irresistible" might still pass for an amusing bit of midwinter froth were it not for the troubling fact A) for a comedy, it isn't very funny and B) for a movie, it doesn't have much of a plot. Early on, the narrative's main conflicts appear to be whether Amanda can keep her hands on her restaurant and whether she and Tom (Sean Patrick Flanery), her uptown executive crush object, will get together. Both problems are pretty much eliminated the minute the Chris Durang/crab/mom's earrings magic kicks in.
Amanda serves Tom and his predictably snooty girlfriend lunch, and the silverware isn't even cleared before the rival is bolting for the door and Amanda's new stature as Manhattan's best chef, gold lami tank top-wearing division, is assured. Why not just roll the credits right here? Because no one will pay $7.50 for a movie ticket, plus extra for popcorn and a supersized Coke, to see a half-hour movie, that's why. So "Simply Irresistible" limps along for another hour, meandering excruciatingly to the inevitable fairy-tale finale in which everybody, including the crab, gets to dress up and go to the ball.
With nothing much more to do plotwise, the film resorts to lingering over multiple scenes of Gellar alternately whipping up trays full of delectable caramel pastries or flitting around in adorable Todd Oldham outfits. After a while, the movie resembles nothing so much as an animated hybrid of Gourmet and Glamour. (Looks great! Less filling!) At other times, the fantastical twists and coy romance resemble a longer, slightly less neurotic episode of "Ally McBeal." Which is not exactly what the world needs more of.
Gellar, her hair darkened to better distinguish her from her ass-kicking television alter ego, tries gamely to inject a little frisky joie de vivre into her otherwise just plain bothered and bewildered character. She looks swell in a tiara, and she whisks like nobody's business. Director Mark Tarlov knows Gellar's a charmer, but he can't resist laying it on too thick. Heavy-handed Audrey Hepburn parallels abound, right down to a scene of Gellar gazing wistfully into a Tiffany's window. But even an enchantress like her can't scare up a convincing chemistry with co-star Sean Patrick Flanery, who aside from his eerie resemblance to David Cassidy, seems to have been cast solely for his Dick York-like ability to appear puzzled. Other than the fact that their romance has been written in the great celestial cookbook, there's no compelling reason Amanda would go for such a lump. He's glum, he doesn't seem very good at his job, and besides, he's easily spooked. One lousy levitation incident and he's running for the hills. What does Amanda see in him? Come to think of it, what did his bitchy ex see in him?
The rest of the cast, including such playing-against-type types as Patricia Clarkson ("High Art") as Flanery's wisecracking assistant and Dylan Baker ("Happiness") as a tightly wound retail magnate, bring their own small sparks to the proceedings, but given that a large portion of their lines consist of "Mmmmmmmmm mmmmm mmmmm!" they don't have a whole lot to work with.
For Gellar, so adept at playing a girl who fights demons and vampires, taking on another role showcasing her otherworldly allure might have seemed at first a sure-fire proposition. But until she gets herself considerably superior material, she's still much more enjoyable to watch wielding wooden stakes than slicing steak tartare. And director Tarlov is a long way from grasping two important cinematic lessons: first, that a film, like a complex cassoulet, is only as good as the elements its creator puts into it. And second, as anyone who watches "Sabrina" knows, supernatural comedies fare far better with a run-of-the-mill talking cat than a 10-legged shellfish.