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What's Cooking?

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: What's Cooking?

Starring: Julianna Marguiles, Alfre Woodard
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: November 2000
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Maury Chaykin, Joan Chen, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick, Estelle Harris, Dennis Haysbert, Lainie Kazan

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"What's Cooking" is one of those movies that make you wonder why so many people bother having families. In the case of the folks in this film by Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji at the Beach"), there's no problem of money. All can afford the kids they've had. But if there's just one day of the year that families should show how happy they are to be together feasting on turkey with all the trimmings, that day is of course Thanksgiving. On the other hand, the enforced closeness could give rise to a outbreak of seething conflicts and to revelations of truths that most of the diners would rather not face. The latter informs the theme of the movie scripted by director Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges which is directed in the mosaic style favored by Robert Altman. The movie falls way short of anything done by Altman, as "What's Cooking" lacks dialogue to match the pungency of the spices used on the holiday bird. What makes the picture worth viewing at all are the performances by some first-rate stars who are stuck in a genre that's as fresh as two-week-old turkey leftovers.

In the tradition of foodie movies like "Woman on Top," "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Babette's Feast," "What's Cooking" features some mouthwatering photography by John Lin of a cornucopia of provisions, all of which are cooked by four families who live within walking distance of one another in a prosperous section of L.A. Each family puts its own cultural stamp on the national dish, some adding kugel for dessert, some stuffing the bird with chili peppers, while another adds macaroni and cheese to the traditional greens. While the four groups are doing well financially, they are of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds; specifically, Vietnamese, Black, Jewish, and Latino. Oddly enough, though, the conflicts that rage within each household are not specific to its cultural background but are of the sort that could easily be imagined to take place in any of the diverse groups explored here.

The only really comical interchange takes place within the Jewish household. Ruth and Herb Seelig (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) have a daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) who brings home her lesbian lover, Carla (Julianna Margulies) as a guest. While the Seeligs are not exactly kvelling over their daughter's orientation, they're not kvetching either. The dinner comes to life at dessert time as the slightly inebriated Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris) asks the young women some question that evoke surprising answers.

As the African-Americans giving thanks, Audrey Williams (Alfre Woodard) has a problem with her husband Ronald (Dennis Haysbert), who is an aide to the conservative California governor. Ronald works long hours and, in fact, may not be working during some the time he's away from home. Audrey is particularly stressed out on this day because her intrusive mother-in-law criticizes her cooking, turning her nose up at the shiitake mushrooms that Audrey uses in place of the traditional stuffing.

The Latino family of Elizabeth Avila (Mercedes Ruehl) is on the verge of tumult during the Thanksgiving feast when Elizabeth's estranged husband Javier (Victor Rivers) shows up though invited only by their son Anthony (Douglas Spain), while the Vietnamese living a hop away and presided over by Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) go ballistic in discovering that their daughter Jenny (Kristy Wu) has a condom in her jacket pocket and their son Gary (Jimmy Pham) is hiding a gun.

While L.A. has gotten bad press during the past few years, the cops getting the brunt of the hostile journalism and the country getting the impression that every teen is in a gang, "What's Cooking" provides a nourishing antidote. If the story is banal, the dialogue lacking in sharpness, and the exposition taking forever before Chadha cuts to the chase, the well-acted film is a love poem to the city of angels, making Thanksgiving into a valentine's-day ode to American diversity.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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