Families. Fights. Feasts.
It's a typical Thanksgiving holiday in Los Angeles. As the big feast approaches, four families prepare for the hospitality and hostilities that normally coincide with relatives getting together to break bread. For Ronald and Audrey Williams, the occasion is one of incredible stress. As a top African American aide to a controversial governor, Ron spends all his time at work. The arrival of tradition minded Grandma from Chicago stirs up old wounds and fresh controversies, especially between father and political minded son, husband and neglected wife. Over at the Avila House, a similar drama is playing out. Having run into his despondent father Javier in the grocery story, proud Latino son Anthony invites him to the family feast. But the bitter, ever battling ex-wife Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the cheating scoundrel. Since leaving his family for a sleazy affair with a distant cousin, he is filled with regrets and now wants a second chance. But it appears Liz has moved on. For longtime Californians Herb and Ruth Seelig, the pilgrim repast brings their grown daughter Rachel back home…along with her lesbian lover Carla. For Mom, Rachel's alternative lifestyle is a tolerable issue, but staunchly Jewish Dad and fellow family members don't necessarily feel that way. And over at the Nguyen residence, the traditional East Asian family is falling apart as the children become more Westernized and distant. Trinh and Duc try to understand their new country and its mysterious traditions even as their eldest son hides from his culture in college and their daughter explores sexual openness. But it's their middle son who raises the most concern. Something found in his bedroom will, oddly enough, affect all four families in a unique and disturbing way.
What's Cooking? is a wonderful work of ensemble acting and delicate scripting. It features a veritable who's who in its cast of creative participants, ranging from the award winning (Mercedes Ruehl, Alfre Woodard) to the fetching (Kyra Sedgwick, Joan Chen) and familiar (Julianna Margulies, Laine Kazan). Along with a wonderful group of newcomers and some old character pros, we get great performances that capture family friendliness, dysfunction, and feuds in all their accurately observed nuances. What's Cooking? is, indeed, a subtle film, a movie that doesn't beat you over the head with its obvious multi-cultural inclusion agenda. Instead, it weaves a wonderful, aromatic spell of brilliantly realized dramatic moments. Credit director Gurinder Chadha, currently enjoying massive critical praise for her 2002 clash of cultures comedy Bend It Like Beckham. She expertly maneuvers between four distinct ethnic traditions, highlighting details and customs while at the same time instinctively drawing on those similar aspects of each that makes us all members of one race—the human. A main theme in What's Cooking? is, naturally, food, and Chadha allows the camera to roam over the detailed preparation rituals of Thanksgiving meals as agile hands dance over and between ingredients in a ballet of culinary skill and sharing. She composes marvelous and mouth watering shots of vegetables steaming on ornate plates, decadent appetizing side dishes, and golden glowing turkeys so faultless and succulent they would make Martha Stewart jealous. It's no surprise then that recipes for several dishes shown in the film are included as a bonus on the DVD presentation. What's Cooking? wants to be a feast for all the senses, not just the emotions, and it succeeds on all accounts.
This is also one of the few films that finds the right tone and approach to what is rapidly becoming the formulaic notion of family discord on the holidays. There are certainly a great many hot button issues in the cinematic mix of What's Cooking?, but Chadha never lets them over-bake into melodrama. Even with sensationalizing story material like homosexuality, racism, adultery, and gang violence, the balancing act between extreme and subdued is maintained nicely. True, there is a tension in the overall feel to the film as we prepare to hear shocking secrets and witness chaotic confrontations. But the astonishing aspect of What's Cooking? is how scenes of potential over the top hysterics are tempered, even underplayed, for more potent impact. One such example is the final resolution to the relationship between Mercedes Ruehl as the jilted, rebounding Elizabeth and Victor Rivers as a humiliated but still overly proud Javier. The most amazing thing about the scene is its calm intensity. Voices are not raised. Tears are not shed. The characters do not embark on audible internal monologues. All we get, instead, are truthful snippets of dialogue and dead-on realistic reaction shots, all carefully coordinated and constructed, and it sells the sequence brilliantly. Indeed, What's Cooking? succeeds because of the details, not only in the cultures and cuisines, but also in the people. From Herb's obsession with his hot tub and dachshund (anything to avoid his gay daughter) to the puzzled looks on the faces of the mostly elderly immigrant grandparents (even when there is a knowing wink or two), we believe in these people and their lives. Nothing seems forced or fabricated, and the way in which they interact as families is natural and genuine. While in the end there is not some massive revelation about the human condition (even while there is an incredibly clever twist in the telling), the message of What's Cooking? is clear and concise. Family, with its rollercoaster sentiments and silly squabbles is a constant, no matter the cultural or ethic differences.
Lions Gate presents What's Cooking? in a fully loaded Signature Series DVD package (other titles include Happiness, Monster's Ball, and Eve's Bayou), and the presentation is indeed first rate. From the opening moments of the film, we are treated to an impeccable and pristine anamorphic widescreen image that is nothing short of effervescent in its colors and bracing in its crispness. Indeed, the palette feels almost hyper-real. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 gets most of its exercise during the family feasting scenes, where different locations at the table can be discerned via the channeling of voices through different speakers in the system. This is a beautiful movie to look at and listen to. As for extras, we get a series of enticing recipes, a trailer that oversells the slight comic ambitions of the film, and some additional ads for other Lions Gate releases. For behind the scenes information on the making of the film, we are left with a series of interview clips and a rather riotous commentary between director Chadha and her co-screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges. The Kenya-born Indian filmmaker raised in London is just so perky and proud of her film that she can't wait to talk about it. And talk she does, in long passages explaining the intent and impressions the film leaves with her today. It's amazing to hear that this exceptional looking and acted film was made for such a small budget and over only 25 days. It's also hilarious to hear how studios wanted a more representative "American" family as part of the film. From the near decade it took to get the movie off the ground to Chadha's impressions of the United States and Los Angeles, this alternative narrative track is one of the best out there. But the one-on-one Q&A with the cast and crew is terrible. Poorly edited (some comments are cut off in mid sentence) and only occasionally on subject, you have to dig through a lot of self-important pontification to learn anything interesting about the actors' approach to the film. This minor point aside however, What's Cooking? remains an amazing look at the age-old custom of feasting with friends and family. It is destined to become a beloved seasonal standard, the kind of film that reminds all of us of what makes holidays and gatherings so special: love and connections.
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• Commentary with Director Gurinder Chadha and Co-Writer Paul Mayeda Berges
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