There have been several efforts at Magical Realist films. The first of these was Robert Redfords delightful The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), although that was arguably preceded by Bille Augusts borderline entry Babettes Feast (1987), which was also about transcendental cooking. There have been a number of others Simply Irresistible producer Jon Amiels Queen of Hearts (1989), The Butchers Wife (1991), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Bille Augusts disappointing adaptation of Isabel Allendes The House of the Spirits (1993), Celestial Clockwork (1995), Rough Magic (1995), Chocolat (2000), Woman on Top (2000) and The Mistress of Spices (2005).
Simply Irresistible is an attempt to import Magical Realism into the formulaic genre of the romantic comedy. The plot, about a woman whose cooking weaves a magical spell that articulates the emotions she feels, is a straight steal from Like Water for Chocolate. Only where Like Water for Chocolate was a constant delight, Simply Irresistible fails to work in any way at all. The problem seems in part to be director Mark Tarlovs failure to understand the genre. The whole point of Magical Realism is the very word Realism. Magical Realism works through its very unaffectedness, through its ability to make the fantastic and the everyday blend with a whimsical nonchalance. However, the scenes of fantastic in Simply Irresistible seem constructed with haphazard regard. All that strikes about the film is the bizarre arbitrariness of the scenes. Scenes where food causes people to float up to the ceiling; a daydream where the two characters seem to momentarily enter a ballroom dance like something out of a 1950s Astaire/Rogers musical; a love scene where steam from a pot forms a layer of mist across the floor. The character of what seems to be the ghost of Sarah Michelle Gellars father turns up at the start of the film and later as a taxi driver who acts as deus ex machina to bring Gellar and male lead Sean Patrick Flanery together but the character is subsequently forgotten about without explanation as to what he was doing there or even who he was in the first place. Other scenes make an impression only in their silliness particularly one where Sarah Michelle Gellars cooking sends Amanda Peet into an uncontrollable fit, causing her to throw food and plates about in the restaurant, or the climactic scene where Gellars big dinner causes everybody to burst into uncontrollable tears. In Like Water for Chocolate, the scenes of each magical banquet were a capricious delight; by contrast in Simply Irresistible, they come so left field and so bizarrely awful that they only draw attention to the absurdity of the exercise.
Furthermore, Simply Irresistible fails to work as a romance either. What makes the romance (and indeed Magical Realism) work is dramatic tension. In Like Water for Chocolate, it was two lovers who have been cruelly separated, he forced to marry another woman and she forced to work as her mothers maid; in The Butchers Wife, Celestial Clockwork and Rough Magic, it was improbable twists of plot contrivation that had lovers married to the wrong people, separated and even killed off before equally improbable twists of fate eventually brought them together in True Love; in The Milagro Beanfield War, it was angels stepping in to aid poor but honest Mexican farmers against ruthless landowners. However, Simply Irresistible lacks any appreciable dramatic or romantic tensions. The two lovers realise their attraction early in the piece and the only tensions that subsequently develop are ... well, he briefly pushes her away because he thinks she is a witch after they float up to the ceiling while kissing, and she is plagued with self-doubts (despite already knowing that she has the ability to create magically transforming meals) over whether she will make a big success of the restaurants opening night. The vagueness of these plot devices is infuriating. In any well constructed story, ex-girlfriend Amanda Peet would become the woman that Sean Patrick Flanery keeps getting drawn back to, possibly even engaged to, before fate intervenes to make him realise that he really loves Sarah Michelle Gellar; or else Dylan Bakers boss would be a hard-ass who doubts Gellars abilities, something her triumph in the kitchen at the climax would finally silence by causing him to loosen up.
Not even the characters in the film work. Sarah Michelle Gellar, riding on the success of tvs cult phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2004), has inherited a role that in any other circumstances would be handed to Drew Barrymore. However, Gellars acting only ever seem to vary between a snooty cynicism, a self-reflexive awkwardness and a seeming series of audience asides which may well be perfect for Buffy but does not make her a particularly endearing romantic lead here. She seems more like the whiny self-absorbed preppy girl you would be eager not to call again after the first date. Equally, Sean Patrick Flanery who, while he has proved himself a capable actor in the past the likes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1994-5) and Powder (1995) seems no more than a handsomely tanned model in a designer suit whose concept of loosening up is to unbutton his shirt.
Director Mark Tarlov, better known as a producer notably for several John Waters film, has only directed one other film with the fantastical musical Temptation (2004).