"What's Cooking?" is a sure-fire winner, an endlessly inventive serious comedy that zeros in on four Los Angeles families--the Avilas, the Nguyens, the Seeligs and the Williamses--as they prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Co-writer and director Gurinder Chadha, a Kenya-born Englishwoman of Indian descent, whose first film was the delightful "Bhaji on the Beach," about a busload of Indian women on an outing to Blackpool, has precisely the right perspective and bemused sensibility to capture our city's famous multicultural diversity. The result is a Thanksgiving treat for all seasons that you may find yourself going back to for seconds.
For so brisk and entertaining a film, sharp in its observations but light in its touch, "Cooking" has unexpected substance and is a formidable accomplishment in that it brings dimension to its nearly 40 principal characters. Chadha and co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges accomplish this by an inspired structure coupled with some of the smartest dialogue heard in an American film this year.
By cutting back and forth between the four families Chadha establishes a buoyant, lively rhythmic pacing while constantly furthering the plot. With the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal given four distinct and clearly delicious approaches, "What's Cooking?" has got to be the most savory movie since not only "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992) but also 1987's "Babette's Feast."
Each time Chadha returns to a family, she and Berges have in motion a developing situation, each loaded with unpredictable elements, that provoke responses from their characters that enable us to see them in an evolving light. The film seesaws between tradition and change with its people learning as they go what's important to hold onto and let go of. As a result, "What's Cooking?" captures the spirit of family life in contemporary Los Angeles to a degree unexpected in a mainstream movie.
Every element of the film gleams, but its script is exceptional, its wit bubbling with seeming spontaneity from what is actually a rock-solid foundation. In the finest Hollywood tradition, it touches upon serious issues and genuine emotion with an unfailing, infectious sense of humor.
All four families live in the central city along a pleasant, leafy stretch of Genesee Avenue, most likely not far from Olympic Boulevard. All live in well-maintained older homes, some more elaborate and sophisticated in decor than others, but all warm and inviting. The Williamses, who are African American, live in a large, old Spanish-style house with a sleek contemporary interior. Alfre Woodard's Audrey, a divorce lawyer, prepares her nouvelle cuisine turkey amid mounting tension. Her husband Ronald (Dennis Haysbert) has an all-consuming job as a top aide to a controversial conservative governor.
That leaves her to cope with her visiting mother-in-law Grace (Ann Weldon), an unthinking and critical traditional matriarch who worships her son but, with comical obtuseness, finds fault with the way Audrey does everything. Both Audrey and Ronald are on edge over their son Michael (Eric K. George) for an undisclosed reason and make excuses to Grace for his assumed absence from the table. The Williamses' gathering will pack plenty of surprises, some of them hilarious, others stinging.
There's also tension at the Nguyens, new to the neighborhood. Joan Chen's Trinh and her husband Duc (Francois Chau), proprietor of a video rental store, are aghast at discovering an unopened condom in a coat belonging to their unhappy daughter (Kristy Wu), refusing to buy her explanation that they're handed out at school. They should be more concerned with their headed-for-trouble son (Jimmy Pham), whom their daughter is trying to protect. The Nguyens are clinging to their Vietnamese traditions so tightly they haven't a clue how to listen to their children.
Meanwhile, at the Avilas, Mercedes Ruehl's attractive Elizabeth, whose dashing macho husband (Victor Rivers) has left her for her cousin, has found consolation with a handsome colleague (A Martinez) at work and has invited him to her family dinner. Elizabeth's son Anthony (Douglas Spain) runs into his father at a supermarket, and since poor old dad is alone now that his fling is over, invites him to Thanksgiving.
Explaining that he can't be himself at home, the eldest Nguyen son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee), a college student, has opted to spend the holiday with his new girlfriend, Elizabeth's daughter Gina (Isidra Vega), telling his parents he's busy studying.
Lainie Kazan's Ruth Seelig and her husband, Herb (Maury Chaykin), accept uneasily though lovingly the lesbian relationship their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) has with another woman (Julianna Margulies), yet Ruth is eager to conceal it from her husband's tiresome elderly relatives (Estelle Harris and Ralph Manza, both very funny).
"What's Cooking?" affords many actors the opportunity to shine. Ann Weldon sparkles and glows, her matriarch as exasperating as she is amusing. Woodard typically dives in deeply to show us a smart, accomplished woman trying to hold herself together in the face of more strain than we had ever imagined.
Kazan's Ruth, like Woodard's Audrey, is striving unobtrusively to be the best cook and hostess possible while trying to ensure that her Thanksgiving meal goes smoothly, knowing she is faced with a potentially volatile situation. Even the smallest roles are clearly defined: Mariam Parris is a hoot as one of Audrey's guests, the outspoken counterculture daughter of one of her husband's colleagues.
In covering so much territory with such unexpected depth, "What's Cooking?" benefits crucially from Stuart Blatt's on-the-money production design with its revealing details. The Seeligs almost certainly have lived in the once lily-white neighborhood the longest, and it tells in their formal, slightly passe decor; leave it to Ruth Seelig to cover her dining room table with an old-fashioned lace cloth. Cinematographer Jong Lin brings a lovely glow to all four households, and Craig Pruess' score enhances the film's shifting moods. Of all the films made about life in contemporary Los Angeles, "What's Cooking?" could well be the one in which the greatest number of Angelenos recognize themselves.
What's Cooking?, 2000. PG-13, for some brief sexuality, language and a perilous situation. A Trimark Pictures presentation in association with Flashpoint and with Jeffrey Taylor for Stagescreen Productions. Director Gurinder Chadha. Producer Jeffrey Taylor. Executive producer Abe Glazer. Screenplay Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Cinematographer Jong Lin. Editor Janice Hampton. Music Craig Pruess. Costumes Eduardo Castro. Production designer Stuart Blatt. Art director Melissa Hibbard. Set designer Steve Mitchell. Set decorator Melissa Levander. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Joan Chen as Trinh Nguyen. Julianna Margulies as Carla. Mercedes Ruehl as Elizabeth Avila. Kyra Sedgwick as Rachel Seelig. Alfre Woodard as Audrey Williams.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun