CULTURE & ARTS
12/19/2018 16:28 EST | Updated 12/19/2018 16:28 EST

An Interview With The Married Couple Behind 'Simply Irresistible,' The Cinematic Aphrodisiac The '90s Forgot

How did such a beautiful disaster get created? I reached out to writer Judith Roberts and director Mark Tarlov, who are married, to find out.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The magical crab opened up our hearts ... love of romantic comedies did the rest. Welcome to HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week.

“Taste ... so good,” Tom, the buttoned-up rich guy played by Sean Patrick Flanery, says between ecstatic mouthfuls of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s batter-speckled face. “It’s amazing. Sweet and a little spicy.” He proceeds to kiss and slurp, and kiss and slurp, in indistinguishable motions.

That’s when my boyfriend peered out from behind the magazine he was reading to ask a legitimate question about the movie unfurling before his eyes: “Are they eating dessert or having sex?”

“A little bit of both!” I chirped back. That’s the beauty of “Simply Irresistible,” the most delectably batty, unreasonably forgotten romantic comedy of all time.

The 1999 film stars a red-headed Buffy as Amanda Shelton, a young woman who inherited her mother’s restaurant, but not her culinary talent. The neighborhood haunt is in danger of shutting down for good when Amanda is approached by a mysterious fellow in an old-timey fedora hawking crabs at the farmer’s market. These crabs, it turns out, have magical powers that allow Amanda to channel emotions into her food. 

During this same market visit, Amanda crosses paths with Tom Bartlett, the shmancy restauranteur with late-’90s spiky hair, up whose pant leg the magic crab creeps. Because Tom makes Amanda horny, lust is the primary emotion infused into her culinary creations, sending the people in her orbit into a state of sexual frenzy.

I was 9 years old when “Simply Irresistible” came out; after watching it, I was a woman. The film introduced me to aphrodisiacs, pedal pushers, magical realism, Patricia Clarkson, adult pigtails, daytime martinis, domestic witchcraft and the lascivious factoid that men think about sex no less than 238 times a day. (The latter statistic I held as an incontrovertible truth.)

Sadly, this underappreciated cultural gem was rudely panned by the adults of its time. Critics, eager to oh so cleverly whip out the food metaphors, compared it to “flat champagne,” a “botched soufflé,” and an “unclassifiable cinematic leftover.” The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin described it as being “both formulaic and bat-shit insane,” which is accurate. Stuffed halfway with the conventions of a hackneyed romantic comedy, and then topped off with a bevy of Lynchian dreamscapes, “Simply Irresistible” is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. One moment we’re watching retrograde rom-com cliches ― like a man who think it’s gentlemanly to buy his date a new dress and leave it for her with a note that reads “wear me” ― and the next, a sea of diners is weeping into their entrees in a “restaurant” reminiscent of the “Twin Peaks” red room.

How did such a beautiful disaster get created? I reached out to writer Judith Roberts and director Mark Tarlov, who are married, to find out.

The plot of this film ― a rom-com about a woman endowed with magical, culinary abilities by a crab ― is unusual. Judith, what was your initial vision for the film?

Judith Roberts: I get a lot of ideas. Some of them have stickiness, some of them don’t. This one was really about how women feel with power. I wanted to express what I felt was a challenge for women: How do you manage your power?

It’s also about what we put into the things we create. The idea that women have an ability to conjure things that men don’t. It was originally written like that, but it got rewritten many, many, many times.

Why did you choose food as the vessel for this power? On the one hand, it kind of plays into stereotypes about women and domesticity, but on the other hand, you do get the sense that even when she’s serving others, she’s exerting power over them?

Roberts: Food is an extension of your soul. When you cook, you put yourself into the dish. Food nourishes everybody. It’s elemental to everybody.

Mark Tarlov: Our family is completely food-dominated. If you believe in context as the determining factor in everyday experience, for us, food always sets the context. We make wine now, so we’ve even further concentrated and focused on sensuality coming from things you put in your mouth. There is a sense of intimacy you achieve with food, because you ask people to put things you created into their body through their mouths, and use their body heat to activate the flavors.

Roberts: The heat that’s created between two people.

Mark, I read an interview in which you said this is really a movie about physics. Can you explain that a little?

Tarlov: I have certain obsessions, one of which is particle physics. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says the laws of physics are the same for everyone who shares a frame of reference. Food sets a frame of reference, so there is a shared sense of the laws of physics, which exists nowhere else except over the plate of food.

The example I use is reading a book on an airplane. It’s not a problem because you and the book are moving at the same speed, so you’re both sitting still. But if you’re not on the plane, the book is flying at 600 miles per hour, and you’re not going to be able to read it at all. The question is: How do you embrace the people you are with in the same frame of reference? It’s all about Einstein and theory.

Judy, did you always intend “Simply Irresistible” to be a romantic comedy? Are you a big fan of the genre?

Roberts: I think romantic comedies, the old ones especially, are fascinating and wonderful and just joyous. I love “It Happened One Night” and “Heaven Can Wait.” I have a real interest in escapism; I gravitate toward magic and witches and fantasy and love. “Some Like It Hot” is an amazing movie where they are unleashed into their own fantasies and succeeding and romping.

I know the movie that audiences ended up seeing was very different from what you initially intended to create. What were some of the biggest changes?

Tarlov: When Judy first wrote the script, it was for Holly Hunter. I’d worked with her on “Copycat” as a producer. She’s a great actress and a fascinating woman. It was really intended at the beginning to be about someone in middle age who hasn’t yet caught up with her stuff. Going from Holly Hunter to Sarah Jessica Parker to Sarah Michelle Gellar ...

Roberts: That caused a bunch of rewrites.

Was this because the studio wanted a younger actress? 

Tarlov: There was a perception that a woman in her late 30s couldn’t open movies. That was fairly well accepted at the time, and maybe still is. And then after they didn’t want to go with Holly, which seemed crazy to me, we had a read through where Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear did it. This was at the height of “Sex and the City,” but they were still convinced they needed to go for a younger audience. “Buffy” was very popular, part of the zeitgeist, the whole thing about female empowerment. So we went with that.

What elements do you think remained constant throughout the rewrites? 

Tarlov: The throughline was this notion of context, and also, if you’ll notice, there are hundreds of mirror shots in the film. This idea of: How do we ever catch up with our reflective selves in the sense of how other people see us and how we see ourselves? The entire movie from beginning to end was about: How do we ever catch up to it? How do we perceive ourselves versus how do other people perceive us? How do we make this overlapping images come together?

Roberts: One of the things we wanted to preserve was not making her a full-on witch. When Tom is on the ceiling, and he says, “Let me down!” and she says “Bippity boppity boo,” we see she’s as confused as he is. It’s not really magic, it’s internal force.

Somebody like Spielberg would not pick a crab. That’s why he’s Spielberg and I’m me. It was probably a mistake.Mark Tarlov

How important to you were the mechanics of the magic as it plays out in the film? The crab, [the market man] Gene O’Reilly ― was there a logic to it all?

Tarlov: It was important to me. The things we bump into that change our direction are often haphazard and not real, they’re perceived. We’re constantly side-stepping things or being bumped around by things that are real or imagined. The body in motion tends to stay in motion unless there is an intervening force. The real question is, what is it that derails us? What is it that pushes us? Most times, they’re not real.

Roberts: In this case, Gene and his crab become a manifestation of it.

I was wondering if Amanda’s mom also had magical powers. She was a chef and Gene mentioned he was a friend of hers, so it seemed plausible.

Roberts: In my original drafts these tendencies existed in the family but had always been suppressed. But that was too complicated.

Why magic crabs, of all things?

Roberts: Peekytoes! [Editor’s note: Peekytoe crabs are a type of crab.] 

Tarlov: We really wanted something that communicated that it doesn’t matter whether this is real or not. The thing about it is, and I think part of the film’s failure with audiences initially, was, there is no explanation for so much of this stuff, you might as well just embrace it.

Roberts: Peekytoes!

Tarlov: Judy does love to say Peekytoe.

The thing about the crab is, it is ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous it can only mean it doesn’t matter. Everything doesn’t need an explanation. There are some things you need to take on faith. I wanted to find some embodiment of that in the familiar. In this case, it had to be a food thing. In the end, she thinks it’s her mom’s earrings. But then she does it without her earrings. So she understands her abilities are internal.

Somebody like Spielberg would not pick a crab. That’s why he’s Spielberg and I’m me. It was probably a mistake.

Jim Smeal via Getty Images
Sarah Michelle Gellar at the 1999 premiere of "Simply Irresistible." 

The audience never truly finds out what exactly gave Amanda her powers or why. I imagine eventually the crab will die from lack of sunlight or water living in that kitchen. After that point, will Amanda’s powers continue?

Tarlov: Yes, her power is not in the crab, it’s in her. We want to as humans attribute everything to something. But in fact it’s the collective unconscious that makes us who we are and who we are and who loves us.

Roberts: When Amanda says to Tom, “Ever since I met you, so many amazing things have happened. I don’t know if I need you to keep this going but I know I want you.” To me, that’s saying, there are all these forces at play. There’s the incitation of sensuality she gets from him. But you can’t pinpoint one specific thing that’s making it all happen.

It didn’t bother me so much when I was a kid but returning to the movie this week, Tom’s character is really an asshole. He’s spoiled, rude, closed-off, cowardly. Do you agree? 

Roberts: No, I think he’s terrified.

Tarlov: I agree.

Roberts: You agree?

Tarlov: He’s one of those guys. There are a million of them. He’s an immovable object fighting an irresistible force. He was drawn that way most deliberately. He’s a guy who would never suspend his disbelief until he had to.

Roberts: He even believed his ability with the paper airplanes was fully scientific. He thought that he, as a master of the universe, could determine the trajectory of a paper airplane so precisely. 

At one point, the character Nolan goes into Amanda’s bedroom, picks up her dolls and starts smashing them together, making them kiss and simulate sex. Why would a grown man do such a thing? 

Tarlov: That came from Larry [Lawrence Gilliard Jr., the actor who played Nolan]. He did it and we just all cracked up, so he kept doing it. I remember when I first saw him do it, I thought, that’s really weird. But that really came out of something Larry wanted to do.

I also wanted to ask about the iconic statistic, “The average man thinks about sex 238 times a day,” which was taken very seriously by my 9-year-old self. Is this real?

RobertsI read that in an article. It was actually from a study. [Editor’s Note: We could not find this study.] 

Tarlov: It comes back to this whole idea that men are really binary, all 0s and 1s. Women, at least in my estimation, are not. It’s an on/off, thing. You’re either thinking about it or you’re not, there’s no room for nuance. That was a very fundamental notion of mine about men and women. Men are digital, women are polynomial.

What about the detail that men touch their belts when they think about sex. Is that real too?

Roberts: No, we just had to find something physical that would suggest it.

One of my theories about “Simply Irresistible” is it’s a movie about being stoned. That’s what Amanda’s really doing ― sneaking weed into her food. It would explain why people become loopy and ravenous when eating it. Is this a potential secret meaning of the film?

Roberts: No, I never thought about that.

Tarlov: Though I must say, the whole idea of the vanilla flowers, they were meant to convey some physical manifestation of the exoticism of the vanilla orchid. Vanilla orchids are amazing creatures. They only bloom once a year. They have to be pollinated by hand or in Mexico by these teeny little bees. They have this ecosystem and they’re extremely intoxicating.

Roberts: But it’s not specifically marijuana, it’s whatever intoxicates you.

Amanda is pretty forward with Tom. She visits him at his store, drops sexual innuendos, invites him to dance, calls him, and invites him on a date. In reaction, Tom often fears her and thinks she’s a witch. Do you see the movie as commenting on men being afraid of women who act forward in relationships?

Roberts: Absolutely. Totally. That moment where Patty Clarkson says, “you succumbed.” His whole thing is about only going on three dates because by the fourth date, you’re in danger. It’s about him trying to escape intimacy. She doesn’t let him do it.

Tarlov: He’s bewitched. When she coaxes him into that dance sequence, he’s doomed. He’s being led around by the forcefulness of the woman who is in fact really insecure except in this relationship. With him, Amanda was someone she wasn’t in the rest of her life. She manages to find a way to get the book to sit still so she could read it.

The dance sequence! What was the motivation there? 

Tarlov: The dance is a copy of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. And that dance floor, which was clearly not curved, is just an optical illusion. That to me, was a metaphor for the whole film. 

I don’t think the film got enough credit for how dreamlike and weird it gets, almost David Lynch-like at moments. What was the inspiration there?

Tarlov: The old Vincent Minnelli musicals. They were romantic and cheerful but they were also weird, kind of Salvador Dali. It’s all about how we surrender when we fall in love. Optical illusions. You look at someone you love and you don’t see them the same way everyone sees them. All of these illusions and reflections ... Is it happening, is it not? The fog, the miasma, when you fall in love. It all really came out of Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s.

Weird question: What are your astrological signs? I am a Taurus, and the sign is known for loving food and pleasure. This movie is the Taurus love story for the ages. Are either of you into astrology?

Roberts: I’m a Libra.

Tarlov: I’m a Gemini. 

OK, never mind. I also wanted to ask about the part where Tom leaves Amanda a dress to wear with a note that says “wear me.” Why is it such a fantasy for men to buy dresses for the women they’re dating?

Tarlov: I think that’s a male fantasy.

Roberts: That was Mark’s idea. I thought ew, but we put it in.

What was it like seeing the critical reactions to the film?

Tarlov: I had to hide in the closet. It was interesting, two reviews stick with me: Roger Ebert was the lone voice of “very good.” I don’t know why he felt that way, but he liked it. And The Daily News, I think, said we had done so little to research for the movie. When Amanda gets in the cab, she says “Hudson and Jay Street in Tribeca,” [and The Daily News said] everyone knows Hudson and Jane Street is in Greenwich Village. Of course, he misheard us. We said Jay, not Jane. [Editor’s Note: We could not find this review.] That allowed me to say these critics don’t know anything. But the reviews were universally so very poor, in retrospect, I understand I did something very wrong.

The script was so much better than the direction. The script was full of big ideas and most of them fell quite flat. On the other hand, over the last 20 years, this movie has played on and on on TV all around the world. It has a small but devoted core of fans like yourself. 

Roberts: It was devastating. I couldn’t believe it. I think the movie required a real suspension of disbelief. You saw it at 9 years old, but adults weren’t willing to go there. It goes back to, people want concrete answers. But our whole point was to be not concrete. Is she a witch or isn’t she a witch? This question plagued the script from the beginning. I was very stubborn about it because it really went to the heart of what I was trying to do. To say we all have this internal magical force.