The most riveting scene in “What’s Cooking?” comes halfway through it, when we are treated to a baking montage.
Criss-crossing through the four different scenes that have already been established, we see the hands of the main characters as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Potatoes are mashed, corn is sliced off the cob, turkeys are stuffed. Real people are getting their hands dirty, creating simple but delicious culinary masterpieces. It’s one of the most mouth-watering scenes I’ve seen in a movie, and I don’t even like half they food they’re making.
“What’s Cooking?” is not really about food, but food is a linking device. It’s about four diverse Los Angeles families and their separate (and occasionally overlapping) Thanksgiving festivities.
The Vietnamese family, the Nguyens, are strict and traditional. The grandparents live with the parents (Joan Chen and Francois Chau). Respect for one’s elders is important. The parents don’t mind too much that their son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee) isn’t coming home from college for the holiday, because “education is the most important thing.”
Jimmy, however, isn’t really staying at school. In fact, he’ll be in his home neighborhood, having dinner with his girlfriend, Gina Avila (Isidra Vega), whose Hispanic family is a little alarmed at her having an Asian boyfriend — but not nearly as much as Jimmy’s family would be if they knew he had a Mexican girlfriend.
The Avila family is already in minor turmoil because dad Javier (Victor Rivers) walked out a year ago after an affair, and now dad-worshipping Anthony (Douglas Spain) has invited him to dinner, even though mom Elizabeth (Mercedes Ruehl) has a new boyfriend (A Martinez).
Then there’s our Jewish friends, Herb and Ruth Seelig (Maury Chaykin and Lainie Kazan). Their lesbian daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) is bringing home her girlfriend, Carla (Julianna Margulies). Hilarity ensues.
And finally, there’s the Williams family, upper-class African-Americans where the husband (Dennis Haysbert) works for the governor, and the wife (Alfre Woodard) fends us unwanted advice from her mother-in-law (Ann Weldon).
Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha is British. She said she wanted to do a film about that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. She got the important details right. The big-table eating scenes are torn from the pages of Americana, even if the specific problems (seems like there was an infidelity in just about every marriage) are a bit heightened for dramatic effect.
There is something truly lovely about four American families praying before Thanksgiving dinner, too. I’m glad Chadha included it.
As has been the case in most Thanksgivings I’m familiar with, the women in this cast are what make the film work. Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Mercedes Ruehl — all three are powerful, beautiful women, playing stoic characters with a lot of heart.
None of the four kitchen-sink comedy/dramas is particularly compelling on its own, stellar acting notwithstanding. It was wise, then, to include four of them: Together, they paint a charming picture of a modern family life that is still, in its way, old-fashioned and traditional.
B (; )