Appellate Judge James A. Stewart tends to pick movies for review while hungry.
Samir: "I had some plans that changed."
There are 18,000 restaurant stories in the Naked City. Eat This New York, a movie I reviewed recently, put the number of restaurants in the Big Apple at around 18,000. Some of them are famous, like Le Cirque. Many more are neighborhood restaurants, like Tandoori Palace, the little Indian place that's the setting for Today's Special.
Facts of the Case
Sous chef Samir (Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) loses a chance to move up to a chef's position because the restaurant's owner doesn't consider him "a creative force" in the kitchen. Samir decides to head for Paris to seek an apprenticeship, but there's one obstacle: telling his father (Harish Patel, Run, Fatboy, Run), the owner of the rundown Tandoori Palace. How much of an obstacle is it? His father, upon hearing Samir's plans, has a heart attack—and Samir has to keep the Tandoori Palace going while Dad recuperates.
After the cook quits in a rage, Samir seeks help from Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a cabbie who used to work in a prestigious restaurant in India. Samir also gets support from Carrie (Jess Weixler, Welcome to Academia), a former co-worker who's about to become something else in his life.
Today's Special presents a bit of a conundrum for a reviewer. Throughout the movie, it celebrates the unexpected dining experience: Akbar teaches Samir to go with his gut in cooking, puts "trust me" on the special placard, and throws the menus in the trash. While Samir is solid in the kitchen, he's criticized for his predictability. However, about half an hour in, I knew how the rest of the movie would go. In essence, Today's Special is more like the solid, predictable Samir than the carefree, quirky Akbar. It's a movie about the joy of surprises in cooking, but surprises in the story are nearly nonexistent; at the same time, it's executed very well.
It's tasty, but it's a familiar dish. You've got the mother (Madhur Jaffrey, The Guru) who wants Samir to settle down, the father who doesn't realize his son's talents, the teacher who helps unlock Samir's potential and then takes off before the final exam, and the woman who has faith in Samir—and you know that Samir will meet all challenges and prove his worthiness in the end. He'll also learn to love the Indian restaurant he wanted to get away from. The humor is rarely laugh out loud, but you'll likely find yourself smiling a lot.
The best thing about Today's Special is the interplay between the mild-mannered Samir and the outgoing Akbar. The predictable Samir almost instantly realizes that Akbar knows his spices, even if he isn't quite ready to improvise himself—and the two hit it off. Aasif Mandvi manages to remain a presence despite Naseeruddin Shah's scene-stealing performance, and Akbar's lessons in cooking and life are both fun and fascinating.
Even though a lot of the story takes place in kitchens, Today's Special uses the New York locations wisely, giving the movie a realistic look and feel. The movie is derived from Mandvi's stage play, Sakina's Restaurant, but it expands nicely. The score has a Bollywood beat, emphasizing the Indian culture.
The extras include a jokey interview with the co-writers (Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines), three deleted scenes that put a different spin on the romantic storyline, a cooking bit with Mandvi and Jaffrey, and a Goldspot video, "Ina Mina Dika," which puts Bollywood-style song and dance against a New York backdrop. There's even a recipe from Jaffrey for Mushroom Bhaaji (as of this writing, I haven't tried it, but it looks tempting).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Are you looking for a movie experience that's more like that trendy three-star meal? Today's Special isn't it. The meal in the movie that it most resembles is the great pushcart meal that Carrie shares with Samir. It's not fancy, but it hits the spot.
An early scene shows sous chef Samir saving the day after a kitchen disaster. It's entirely possible that a few busy nights at Tandoori Palace could have been enough to hone his Indian cooking skills, even if that wouldn't have made for as good a movie.
The movie's chefs aren't as daring as Akbar, but I like popping comfort food into the DVD player as much as I like popping comfort food into the microwave. If you feel the same way, put Today's Special on the menu.
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