Magic In the Kitchen

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It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good old guilty pleasure movie review here on the blog, and one of my favorites is 1999’s Simply Irresistible, starring Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a magic crab. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Well, maybe I could. Some of the things about this movie may look a little familiar.

And if the title makes anyone get a certain infamous Robert Palmer song in their head, it’s totally natural. Anyway…

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Amanda Shelton (Sarah Michelle Gellar) owns the Southern Cross, a failing seventy-year old Tribeca restaurant. Tom Bartlett (Sean Patrick Flanery) works for Henri Bendel overseeing their swanky new restaurant, Jonathan’s.

Their meet-cute is a little complicated. Amanda runs across a guy at the farmer’s market named Gene O’Reilly (Christopher Durang). He says he knows Amanda’s deceased mother and talks Amanda into buying a basket of Peekytoe crabs. Amanda finally does, only to have one of them escape and head straight for Tom Bartlett, who’s at the market with his new chef, Valderon (Olek Krupman). Amanda reaches for the crab and accidentally grabs Tom’s leg. She fumbles out something about the crab’s destiny to be Crab Napoleon (she got the idea from an advertisement on a passing taxi) and the two of them part ways.

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Gene is the one to bring back the wandering crab, but when Amanda goes to thank him he’s disappeared. Hmmmm. Intriguing. I’m being sarcastic, of course.

That crab is important. Just wait. And it’s a Dungeness, not a Peekytoe.

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Amanda’s in denial about her restaurant closing but there’s not much she can do. She can’t cook. Her few customers are her friends and the landlord has raised the rent to five thousand dollars a month. Aunt Stella (Betty Buckley) tells her to keep her chin up and her best friend and sous chef Nolan (Laurence Gilliard, Jr.) thinks they can get a job at another restaurant.

Lo and behold, Tom shows up with his girlfriend, Chris (Amanda Peet). Tom has trouble with committment; he thinks any date past the fourth date dooms everyone to steadily declining happiness, and he’s taking Chris to lunch to break up with her. They were supposed to go to Chantrelle but their cab driver looks a lot like Gene O’Reilly, funnily enough, and speeds away from the Southern Cross before Tom can do anything.

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Tom orders crab Napoleon and Chris orders chicken Paillard, leaving Amanda scrambling. And jealous. She pounds the heck out of a chicken breast while Nolan boils the crabs. Meanwhile, the wandering crab from before has installed itself on a shelf above the stove, and here’s where things get really interesting. While Amanda is supposedly fumbling with the crab and wishing she could, just once, make something really great, the crab is on the shelf overseeing the scene.

Amanda’s listing all the synonyms for “delicious,” when the camera finally pans down and we see the ultra-gourmet crab dish she’s just prepared. It looks great. It looks like smoked salmon layered with crab salad on a dill cream base. Everyone is shocked, including Amanda. Everyone is even more shocked when Tom raves over the crab and Chris goes nuts after one bite of her Paillard, breaking plates and burping. Oh, and she dumps Tom, who is still blissfully absorbed in his crab Napoleon. Like the gentleman he is, a dazed Tom promises to replace the plates.

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The Southern Cross turns around and it’s a good thing Amanda’s got new plates because she suddenly has more business than she knows what to do with. She invents a caramel eclair that makes people frisky. Tom keeps coming back and freaks out when dates with Amanda include vanilla-scented fog and floating on the ceiling. He doesn’t want Amanda anywhere near him, but then Valderon, who’s a major prima donna, quits and Jonathan Bendel (Dylan Baker) and Tom’s buyer, Lois (Patricia Clarkson) convince Amanda to step in.

This movie is frothy, predictable, and dumb, garnering a 16% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The restaurant is straight out of Yolanda and the Thief and a Fred and Ginger movie. It makes so many plays for the credibility it’s laughable, and it’s got story holes galore. Like Gene O’Reilly, for instance. There’s a deleted scene in the trailer of Gene showing up at the Southern Cross as a customer and telling Amanda that with the right ingredients, magic can happen.

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It would have been so much better if the movie had Gene as a waiter or something so he could be talking to Amanda and Nolan about what’s going on, or at least smiling benevolently as he delivers food to tables. Instead, Gene disappears after dropping Tom and Chris off at the Southern Cross and we get the crab on the shelf waving its claw like a Jedi master.

Untapped potential seems to be Simply Irresistible‘s main flaw, because it spends a lot of time on bits that never get developed, like Gene O’Reilly, or for that matter, Tom’s paper airplane fetish. Yeah. The guy is obsessed with paper airplanes. His office is decorated in them and he’s made scientific studies of the physics of making wood pulp fly. Yet it’s a side schtick that’s eclipsed by overly long conversations about how often the average guy thinks about sex and what it really means when men adjust their belts.

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There’s something winning about the film, too. It’s pretty akin to Like Water For Chocolate except that it’s got a different kind of weird. No one eats candles in this movie, for one thing, and why would they? The food looks fantastic. Other people have thought so–those sparky caramel eclairs have inspired at least one food blogger to recreate them. And that crab Napoleon that Amanda supposedly fumbled her way into is actually a thing. It’s been made with everything from fresh pasta sheets to Parmesan cheese to pico de gallo to couscous to shrimp to puff pastry. I only found one recipe using Peekytoe crab, though, because it’s precious and expensive.

Also likely out of reach are Amanda’s whole stoned nectarines filled with creme anglaise, because they spew vanilla fog when they’re cut into. I don’t know how a real chef would make one of these. Maybe with dry ice?

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The other thing I like about the movie is that it’s set in New York prior to 9-11. The Twin Towers are prominently featured in a lot of scenes, and the streets are funky, old, narrow New York as it was in the nineties before gentrification. It all seems remarkably innocent and idyllic. Nowadays the iconic Henri Bendel space has been annexed by Harry Winston and the Henri Bendel brand is no more. I feel a little bittersweet about it even though I only spent four days in Manhattan in 1994. It’s funny how New York stays with you.

Simply Irresistible is definitely not the greatest movie, but I think it’s one of the most delectable guilty pleasure movies ever.

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A special announcement is coming up on Monday. Thanks, as always, for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…


Simply Irresistible is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

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