|Tom Bartlett (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Amanda Shelton (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Simply Irresistible|
Guest post written by Carleen Tibbetts.
The 1999 romantic comedy Simply Irresistible begins with the female lead, Amanda Shelton (Sarah Michelle Gellar), milling around a New York City farmer’s market (decked out in Todd Oldham! So 90’s!) searching for ingredients for what she believes is the last service at her restaurant, Southern Cross. A mysterious shaman in the guise of a market vendor convinces Amanda to buy a basket of crabs (totally legit), one of which scampers away and leads her to painfully handsome department store executive Tom Bartlett (Sean Patrick Flanery). Tom is in charge of a new restaurant venture opening in Henri Bendel’s. Flustered, smitten, and clearly playing into the “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” cliché, as Tom is leaving, Amanda tells him she can cook Crab Napoleon. If this is starting to sound improbable, here’s the trailer:
However, we quickly learn that Amanda’s a bit of a culinary flop. She’s struggling to hold onto her late mother’s restaurant whose only patrons are an elderly married couple and a man who brings his own sack lunch every day. Amanda’s wrestling with her own professional and personal inadequacies: she’s losing the family restaurant, she will never be the caliber of cook her mother was, she’s failed as a daughter, she’s failed herself, etc. At least she’s failing wearing Todd Oldham, right? Is that where the restaurant’s rent checks have been going?
After breaking the news of the restaurant’s last service to her loyal regulars, Amanda goes outside for a cry. As fate would have it, a taxi (driven by this mysterious spirit guide from the farmer’s market…) pulls up in front of the restaurant and out tumbles Tom Bartlett and his high-class girlfriend (Amanda Peet). Fate has literally dropped Tom on Amanda’s doorstep and given her the chance to prove herself as a cook and girlfriend material. Or whatever. Amanda begins to panic, realizing that she has no idea what goes into the Crab Napoleon Tom orders. Her sioux chef cooks all the crabs with the exception of special, all-knowing crab that led Amanda to Tom earlier. This crab hears Amanda’s pleas for success, and things start to turn around. Right . . .
While making the Crab Napoleon, Amanda wishes for everything to come together so that one bite is ecstasy. She asks her chef if he’s noticed all the words there are to describe something delicious: savory, tasty, scrumptious, delectable, mouthwatering (all of which are also used to describe a woman’s attractiveness) and then after she’s done listing these, the Crab Napoleon, done to perfection, suddenly materializes on the plate (No kitchen cleanup required! Thanks, magic crab for making me talented! There’s no way I had the self-esteem to pull this off solo!). Amanda refers to this woman as “the mistake” Tom is with, but the male chef comments that the woman is perfect, with skin “like butter” (the lines between culinary and sexual ecstasy get quite blurred throughout this film), and Amanda is convinced this Barbie-esque woman isn’t right for Tom.
Let’s backtrack a minute. Tom’s no saint. He takes his Barbie to lunch for date number four, the date on which he routinely dumps every woman he dates (after the third date, which suggests they’ve slept together). Also, very classy to dump someone over a meal in a public place where he assumes she won’t cause a scene, right? Pre-lunch, Tom tells his assistant, Lois (Patricia Clarkson) how everything seems to turn sour after the third date. Women start to get clingy and expect things. His flavor-of-the-week wants more, and it makes him uneasy. He even drafts a “happiness chart” demonstrating how things taper off and fizzle after the conjugal third date (how much time does a restaurant exec for a high-end department store have on his hands?). Lois turns the curse of the fourth date around on Tom and asks him what role his behavior plays as the relationship fizzles. Tom has commitment issues. Big surprise. But, back to lunch . . .
Upon eating Amanda’s Crab Napoleon, Tom blisses out. He completely forgets about breaking up with his Barbie. Instead, the Barbie tells Tom she’s too perfect for him, and proceeds to trash Amanda’s restaurant. Amanda needs new plates, and Tom is single again. Amanda dresses up and heads uptown to Henri Bendel to pick out new place settings with a box of éclairs in hand, because she believes “dessert is the whole point of the meal.” Tom eats one of the éclairs, feeding bites of it to Amanda, and what ensues is some hallucinatory, mutually orgasmic sexual fantasy in which he shows her the space for the store’s new restaurant and they dance. Or, they think they danced . . .
Amanda’s cooking has gone from abysmal to five-star. She’s thinking positively about her chosen profession. The restaurant is thriving. The place is hopping. She’s a success. She’s a genius. She’s a successful businesswoman. She done her momma proud. She’s a sister doing it for herself. BUT WAIT, SHE’S SINGLE AND THUS INCOMPLETE!
Amanda falls into that mind game abyss and tries to decode Tom’s behavior, fretting over why he hasn’t called since their sugary rendezvous. She call and invites to cook him dinner after she’s closed up shop for the night. He comes up with some lamely vague “I’m busy” excuse but wants to come by later. As in LATER. Clearly a booty call. Don’t be a doormat, Amanda! He shows up with flowers, and she cooks him dessert using the vanilla orchid he brings her. In what must be the most ridiculous scene, even in a film remotely dealing with the supernatural, some otherworldly fog boils out of the dessert cauldron and envelops them. He licks her skin, tells her she tastes good, and they disappear under what looks like dry ice covering the entire restaurant.
At this point, Tom is craving Amanda, or is it her food he’s after? He has some sort of post-coital glow after eating her baked goods. He begins to panic, wonders what has come over him, and when next he sees her, they float as they’re making out. The dizzying love-rush feelings freak Tom out, he feels trapped, pinned (literally, to the ceiling) and accuses Amanda of witchcraft. Confronted with commitment and serious feelings, Tom bails.
Meanwhile, the French chef decides to walk out before the restaurant at Henri Bendel opens. At the request of his boss, Jonathan (the ever-creepy Dylan Baker), Tom grudgingly asks Amanda to fill in. Jonathan and Lois have also fallen into lust together after Lois literally shoved Amanda’s treats down his throat, and Jonathan wants this venture to be a success.
Amanda manages to shove aside all her neuroses and hang-ups about her talent, or lack thereof, and commandeers a successful multi-course meal as Henri Bendel’s lead chef. Amanda’s emotions are fused into her cooking, and all the patrons travel her peaks and valleys with each course that is served. Tom refrains from eating her food, both out of nervousness for the restaurant’s success, and to test whether or not his feelings for Amanda stemmed from her food.
Tom realizes he’s an emotional infant. How does he win her back? With diamonds and a dress, duh! He leaves a tiara and a pink dress on a Bendel mannequin with a “wear me” note. They dance, for real this time, in the restaurant where Amanda is now chef supreme. She got the notoriety. She tamed a renowned lady-killer. She got the man. She got the fairytale ending. What will become of Southern Cross? Of Amanda and Tom? Of the mystical crab? Who knows, we’re all to busy riding the sugar high to care about anything beyond the ephemeral.
Simply Irresistible both perpetuates and slays gender stereotypes surrounding food, cooking, sex, and their interconnectedness. Sure, Amanda becomes a capable, self-assured cook capable of holding her own in a traditionally male-dominated profession, but was it because she was truly talented or because Tom got her the gig? Why is food (especially baking) almost always used as an aphrodisiac when a woman “seduces” a man and not vice-versa? Why does Lois deliberately set out to entrap Jonathan with Amanda’s desserts? Would he have been interested in her at all otherwise? Would Amanda have had the strength to stay clear of Tom after his man-child temper tantrum?
So much importance is still placed on whether or not a woman can cook, and no matter how enlightened we think we are, a woman who isn’t successful at the whole domestic bit isn’t as desired. Look at all the ads that deal with cooking and cleaning. The vast majority of TV and print ads are still targeted toward women! In 2012! Granted, this is not the Cold-War-Have-a-Martini-in-Hand-For-Your-Husband-When-He-Gets-Home-From-Work-Era, but mothers who work are still expected to shop, cook, and clean up after it all. We can’t all be Nigella Lawsons, but we shouldn’t have to be beautiful baked goods goddesses to be “complete.” As women, we need to follow our passions and creativity and not get caught up in the notion that emotional fulfillment and validation come from whether or not we’re single. Amanda should have thrown that tiara in Tom’s face, handed him a box of her desserts, and told him to get bent.
Carleen Tibbetts lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot,
, and other publications.