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Movie Review

'What's Cooking?' Simmers in Los Angeles Melting Pot

Wit and emotions run high as four diverse families gather for Thanksgiving.


"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).

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