Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:35 - Released 2/5/99

Though he has a reasonably respectable resumé as producer, including such quirky films as Serial Mom and The Man Who Knew Too Little, Mark Tarlov made a grave error when embarking on Simply Irresistible, his first outing as director: He collaborated with two people on their first outing as writers. Though the film contains some tasty visuals and slightly amusing characterizations, its script (by freshmen Judith Roberts and Elisabeth Robinson) is clearly its weakest link. And star Sarah Michelle Gellar isn't much stronger. A graduate of the head-tossing school of acting with no depth and the emotional palette of a tunafish, Gellar is not suited for the romantic lead — I don't care how cute she is.

She plays Amanda Shelton, the chef at a floundering New York restaurant called The Southern Cross. Though the place has been there for ages, originally owned by Amanda's mother who made it a success, it is doomed to closure for lack of business. See, Amanda just isn't the cook her dear departed mom was, and the bills are soon going to force her to declare bankruptcy. Even so, when she meets a nice guy in the marketplace named Tom Bartlett (Sean Patrick Flanery), she can't resist trying to impress him by bragging about her Crab Napoleon, which she has never actually made. Since Tom just happens to be the manager of Jonathan's, a new posh restaurant that is about to open, he is intrigued, so he and his obnoxious girlfriend Chris (Amanda Peet) stop in for lunch. And that's when the crab hits the fan.

The day Amanda saw Tom in the market, she also met a mysterious fellow (Christopher Durang) who convinced her to buy a basket of crabs. In that basket was a special crab apparently endowed with magical powers. She doesn't cook him, but he's there when she makes lunch for Tom. Though she has little ability as a chef, she turns out a dish so incredible it makes Tom fall for her. Meanwhile, Chris's lunch makes her throw dishes around the place and stomp out. Sound silly? It is.

Though my first thought was that she was simply putting LSD in the food, the explanation is different: When Amanda has the animatronic crustacean in the kitchen, she is able to pass her emotions on through her culinary concoctions. But no one discovers this until much later, when she has been asked to step in for the chef who quit Tom's restaurant on opening night. All the beautiful people (and all the high-powered critics) are there when she goes to work, and soon they are all laughing, crying, loving, etc., with each new course.

It is astonishing that Gellar, apparently unable to produce any range of emotion at all, was chosen by director Tarlov as the lead in this highly emotional story. But perhaps it was intentional; maybe we're supposed to guess her feelings by her food, in the absence of any other clues. Some of the supporting characters, like Jonathan, the self-absorbed restaurant owner (Dylan Baker), and Lois, his amorous assistant (Patricia Clarkson), add frivolous fun to the proceedings. Amanda's pragmatic sous-chef, Nolan (Larry Gilliard Jr.), provides the necessary stability to counterbalance the silliness. Meanwhile the food, which plays a major role itself, is gorgeous; it is surely the most appealing aspect of the movie.

The love story of Simply Irresistible is satisfying in an offbeat way, and the film is visually mouth-watering, but the terribly juvenile script and Gellar's lackluster performance bring it down several steps from what it could and should be. **½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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