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By Susannah Breslin | January 20, 2000

Ah, here come those holiday movies. Since The Grinch will be attempting to steal Christmas this year, What’s Cooking? has its beady little eyes set on Thanksgiving. But, this isn’t your Grandma’s turkey that’s cooking. This small-budget look at Turkey Day for four families in L.A. lets you find out how lesbian Jews, rich African-Americans, loud Latinos, and cranky Asians spend their Thanksgiving. What’s cooking? Well, spring-rolls and tortillas for starters. And, when it comes to this ode to turkey diversity, this one’s a little overly sugar-coated.
What’s Cooking? does a fine enough job early on of neatly slicing together the disparate lives of four diverse families as they ready for and fight heavily during the pre-Christmas holiday. Jumping from one home to another, we watch as the lead matriarchs of each house toil away in the kitchen while their husbands, children, and friends freak out around them. Mercedes Ruehl puts in one of her typically feisty performances as Elizabeth, head of the Latino Avila household where the daughter’s bringing home an Asian boyfriend, Pappy’s done something very naughty, and the son is sort of a chauvinist. Over in the African-American household, Alfre Woodard chews up scenery as the willful Audrey Williams, intent on making a non-traditional dinner while her crotchy mother-in-law frowns, her teen son acts up politically, and her husband works too damn much. In the Vietnamese home, Joan Chen quakes away as the shaky specter of Trinh Nguyen, just trying to hold things together as her son is drawn into bad behavior, her daughter can’t stop rebelling, and her husband shouts at everybody. Finally, over in the Jewish household, the ever-kvetching Lainie Kazan as the ever-kvetching Ruth Seeling molds matzos while her daughter brings home her female lover, her husband relentlessly soaks in the hot-tub, and her son brings home the grandsons. Phew! Who knew Thanksgiving could be this complex.
Director/Co-Writer Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach) has her hands full with this script of forty speaking parts, but for the most part she well enough weaves together the unfolding story of each family. So, as conflict arises (that’s the way movies work, you know)–Javier Avila (Victor Rivers) gets drunk and mouthy, Jenny Nguyen (Kristy Wu) is accused of condom possession, Rachel Seelig (Kyra Sedgwick) and Carla (Julianna Margulies) share a bed, Michæl Williams (Eric K. George) throws paint at a white dude–you follow right along. But alas, many of the ingredients in this movie melting-pot quickly become so sweet as to spoil the soup.
Various vignettes where music plays as meat gets cooked in some deranged ode to food fetishism are geared to appeal primarily to wifely viewers who’ve spent too much time in the kitchen. Men, for the most part, in Chadha’s script are jerk-offs–too busy philandering or drinking beer or making money to take care of their tortured families–as stereotypes about minority groups and ethnic cultures are merrily exploited across the board. And, several of the performances by those entrusted to play children are overwrought, overdone, and overacted. Frequently, What’s Cooking? can’t seem to decide exactly what it is cooking–a diversity drama, an uplifting mini-series, or a cooking class. It suffices to say that the press material for this film includes recipes. If you aren’t the type to rush home and bake Fool-Proof Rustic Pie, you might leave the theater feeling like you didn’t get much of substance.
Really, to be honest, What’s Cooking is a feel-good film for women who are into the concept of the holidays and anyone else interested in the marriage of families and happy-endings. It suffices to point out that while this movie does contain a so-called surprise ending, the press materials “WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE [MY] NOT REAVEALING THE “SUPRISE” ENDING,” but I don’t think you would be very surprised if I told it to you. The surprise is about as high-impact as Thanksgiving; you forget it pretty much right after. Go for the female lead performances if you must–Ruehl is always worth sitting through and Margulies does a pretty impressive lesbian–but, for the love of god, don’t show up hungry.

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