What’s Cooking? opens with a photograph of a white, All-American-looking family gathered around a Thanksgiving turkey. As the camera zooms out, we discover the image is an advertisement for a brand of turkey hanging on the side of a Los Angeles Metro bus. The bus then takes us on a tour during the film’s title sequence, through the various ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles (Jewish, Japanese, African-American, Russian, Mexican, etc.). The multicultural tour of the city is a fitting introduction to this comedy-drama, which focuses on four middle-class LA families from diverse ethnic backgrounds who are forced to confront their respective problems when they each gather to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays—Thanksgiving. At first, the Mexican Avilas, the Vietnamese Nguyens, the Jewish Seeligs, and the African-American Williams bear no resemblance to the happy, Norman Rockwell-ish clan in the turkey ad. Yet before the pumpkin pie is even served, the tensions at each dinner table will reach a boiling point, secrets will be revealed, and estranged family members will reconcile their longstanding differences.
First-time director Gurinder Chadha, who comes with her own multi-cultural background (she is a Kenyan-born Englishwoman of Indian descent), has the difficult task of interweaving the four narratives. Herb and Ruth Seeling (Maury Chaykin and Lainie Kazan) welcome their daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lover Carla (Julianna Margulies) into their home, though they are not comfortable enough with their daughter’s sexual orientation to let Rachel’s nosey Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris) know they are more than roommates. Elizabeth Avila (Mercedes Ruehl) is less than pleased when her son invites her estranged husband Javier (Miami Dolphins offensive lineman-turned-actor Victor Rivers) to join them for dinner because her current boyfriend Daniel (A Martinez) is coming over for dessert. At the Nguyens’, mother Trinh (Joan Chen) struggles to maintain her hold over rebellious teenagers, one of whom brings a gun into the house with near-tragic results. And over at the Williams’ house, Audrey (Alfre Woodard) is losing her patience with her critical mother-in-law Grace (Ann Weldon), as she tries to bring together her son Michael (Eric K. George), a college drop-out, with his father Ronald (Dennis Haybert), who has made some mistakes of his own.
Surely, with its four plotlines and large ensemble cast, What’s Cooking? loads up viewers’ plates. But I left the theater feeling a little less than satisfied. Chadha and co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges’ screenplay relies too heavily on melodramatic situations, which are compromised by underdeveloped characters and some serious overacting. This is particularly true in the storyline involving the Nguyen family, which turns into a combination of an afterschool special and a public service announcement about gun safety. Chen is way, way over-the-top as the hysterical matriarch who is trying to control her children who have come to dinner, and also cope with the absence of her favorite son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee), a medical student who, unbeknownst to her, is having dinner across the street with the Avilas. Trinh is reduced to a caricature of an Asian-American mother as she delivers speeches about the importance of education and the negative effects of U.S. consumer culture on her children. Whether she’s finding a condom in her daughter’s pocket or discovering her son is hiding a gun, Trinh overreacts, which leaves her little room to develop or recover by film’s end.
Although she is given even less to do on screen, Alfre Woodard is far more effective as Audrey, the mother and wife who is just trying to keep her family together. Unlike Chen, Woodard gives a quiet and introspective performance. She effectively conveys a woman who is in pain and is slowly losing her ability to hide it. In one of the film’s best scenes, she sits at the kitchen counter and begins to devour slice after slice of blueberry pie until she finally loses her self-control altogether. There is nothing terribly original about the problems she is dealing with—her son dropped out of college, her husband had an affair, her mother-in-law is overbearing. Still, Woodard manages to rise above all the cliches, to a show us a woman who is on the literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Meanwhile, a few houses away, the Jewish Seeligs provide the film’s comic relief as the couple have difficulty coming to terms with their daughter’s sexual orientation. As with the other plot lines, this is familiar territory. The sequence in which Aunt Bea, played by Seinfeld‘s Estelle Harris, grills her niece about her love life plays like a television situation comedy. In an unusually restrained performance, Kazan does provide some genuine moments in which Ruth expresses to Rachel a mixture of love, disappointment, guilt, and disapproval of Rachel’s sexual orientation. Still, one wishes there was more of a resolution between mother and daughter after Rachel makes a surprising announcement at the dinner table.
The situation involving the Avila family appears to be the least complicated. Javier regrets cheating on his wife Elizabeth with her cousin Rosa, and now he wants his wife back. The only saving grace in this well-worn scenario is the talented Mercedes Ruehl. In the film’s best written scene, she finally convinces her husband she doesn’t want him. Ruehl’s measured delivery is refreshing alongside the unevenness of the other performances and the film’s inconsistent tone. In spite of its melting pot premise, What’s Cooking? contains one-dimensional characters and situations. The result is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing holiday fare.