Basic as the word may be, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition for the adjective “cute” goes in three very distinct directions. The second variation thereof: “attractive or pretty, especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way” is the one used most often. The first meaning veers smarter defining “cute” as “clever or shrewd, often in an underhanded manner” and “impertinent, smart-alecky.” Lastly, “cute” can also describe something “obviously straining for effect.” As coincidence would have it for this 25YL article on “Guiltfree Pleasures”, the sentence example on that third definition reads “The movie’s too cute to be taken seriously.”
Folks, we have a triple winner. The 1999 Valentine’s Day romantic comedy and Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle Simply Irresistible typifies each of those three definitions of “cute.” The attractiveness is easy to spot and the creative smarts bubble with the glamour. Most especially, though, the movie is entirely the third one supported by the cinematic citation.
With its willowy whiff of courtship and cuisine, this movie is indeed too cute to be taken seriously. The proper response as a viewer for Simply Irresistible then is simple. Don’t take it seriously. Enjoy all the flights of fancy and let yourself lap up all the cuteness possible.
Originally titled Vanilla Fog, the movie begins with a classic Hollywood meet cute complete with soon-to-be-recurring klutziness. Gellar’s fashionably mismatched and plucky restaurant owner Amanda Shelton catches the ankle and the eye of Sean Patrick Flannery’s clean-cut and blue-suited exec Tom Bartlett at a sunny outdoor food market, when an ornery peekytoe crab she came into possession of tries to crawl up his dapper and unsuspecting dress pants. From the get-go, this silent little crustacean and the guardian angel of Gene O’Reilly (Tony Award-winning playwright Christopher Durang) stand as the proxy puppeteers from the mystic beyond sent to improve Amanda’s failing business, unraveling confidence, and romantic luck.
Thanks to this twinkling and clawed dash of magic, Amanda and Tom soon find their personal and professional trajectories intertwined. Amanda is an exceedingly sweet woman who recently lost her mother and culinary mentor. She is quick to give a compliment and earns them just the same. A little corps of loyal old customers, her Aunt Stella (Betty Buckley of Split), and her bestie sous chef Nolan (poor Larry Gilliard, Jr., checking off the ’90s trend of the necessary sidekick of token diversity for the second time in a year after The Waterboy) help her mother’s Southern Cross restaurant stay open despite financial woes and a chef’s version of writer’s block.
Tom is a paper airplane connoisseur and a data-minded man of pragmatism and neurotic picadillo’s. He is handcuffed to a vain girlfriend (Amanda Peet before her The Whole Nine Yards breakout) and charged with opening a $4 million posh restaurant inside the high-end Henry Bendel designer department store for Bendel heir Jonathan Bendel (veteran character actor Dylan Baker). His right-hand voice of reason and persistent pusher is his assistant Lois (Patricia Clarkson, the best talent of the ensemble), who has fawning eyes for Jonathan.
The kooky kick of edible enchantment is that Amanda’s feelings are mixing in and coming out of her renewed cooking. Needless to say, with one ecstatic bite, Tom, and anyone else with a triggered taste, is hooked. The charisma of the actors take over to sell this sorcery.
Powder impresser and hot The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones star Sean Patrick Flannery—months before The Boondock Saints would turn him into an even bigger cult icon—counts as a nice casting get, but this entire project was built for the enormous Buffy the Vampire Slayer popularity of Sarah Michelle Gellar at the peak of her powers. Simply Irresistible, She’s All That, and Cruel Intentions all hit theaters in the winter of 1999, and this one was the flop of the trio by a large margin. It’s a shame, because Simply Irresistible might be the most re-watchable.
Gellar and Flannery, draped nicely by the threads of costume designer Janie Bryant (It, Deadwood, and Mad Men), look gorgeous together. The aimed eye contact and targeted gazes alone, followed often by snickers and smirks between the two, disarm at every come-hither turn. Just the committed presence of the central couple overcomes some awful “if the broom fits, ride it” dialogue from Judith Roberts (her only feature credit). Loopy feelings from food make for a loopy movie too that sputters to a sweeping finish.
The raunch-less love scenes of cooking, kissing, and dancing can initially seem to come from a different movie than a ’90s-era romantic comedy in the same year as American Pie. But then, with the dedication for the glossy showmanship never shrinking, you realize you’re exactly in a throwback. With a tweak of two of period adjustment and pacing, Simply Irresistible would fit either in the Pillow Talk genre of farces or the It Happened One Night-level screwball comedies. This is a successful tone recognized by the late Roger Ebert in his overwhelmingly positive review of the film. His take comprises a hefty minority chunk of the movie’s unsightly 13% Rotten Tomatoes rating and 27 Metacritic score.
It takes a special kind of acting to make every bite on-camera look orgasmic while still carrying the throwaway sexual humor and scripted lines. One wonders how many takes and versions director Mark Tarlov (the husband of Roberts working his only feature directing credit after a career as a producer) and his editor Paul Karasick sifted through for the cuts they settled on. The emotiveness while chewing, especially during the climactic big dinner backed prominently by Gil Goldstein’s nice and thick score, is over-the-top and adorable. Eat your heart out, Brad Pitt.
As Gellar’s character seductively states, “dessert is the whole point of the meal.” Simply Irresistible is a sweet tooth’s dream, both in the kitchen and on the home-viewing couch. By golly, if you do not crave an obsessive urge and want to lick the DVD with the imagined taste and aroma of the caramel eclairs and other plates you see on screen, your parietal lobe interpreting those functions is broken. Go ahead and accept all of the synonyms for “delicious” used by Amanda in one aside to describe the treats on screen, including “savory,” “tasty,” “scrumptious,” “delectable,” “succulent,” and “mouthwatering.” Don’t worry, heavily researched copycat recipes exist for your future date night.