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"WHAT'S COOKING?"
(2000) (Joan Chen, Alfre Woodard) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As four families of varied ethnic backgrounds separately assemble for Thanksgiving at their individual homes, they must all then deal with the varied family dynamics and issues confronting them.
PLOT:
It's Thanksgiving in Los Angeles and everyone's getting ready for the holiday, whether it's preparing for the big feast or arriving back home from out of town. Among those getting ready is the Williams family where mother Audrey (ALFRE WOODARD) is hoping for a perfect celebration. Unfortunately, she must cope with her meddling and critical mother-in-law, Grace (ANN WELDON), as well as her always busy at work husband, Ronald (DENNIS HAYSBERT), and his estranged relationship with their college-aged son, Michael (ERIC K. GEORGE), who may or may not come home for the holidays.

Then there's the Avila family where mother Elizabeth (MERCEDES RUEHL) hopes to introduce her new boyfriend and fellow teacher, Daniel (A MARTINEZ), to the family, but must contend with the fact that her son, Anthony (DOUGLAS SPAIN) has invited her adulterous and now separated husband, Javier (VICTOR RIVERS), over for Thanksgiving in hopes of getting them back together.

Although most of her family wants that to occur, Elizabeth needn't worry about getting such pressure from her daughter, Gina (ISIDRA VEGA), since she's preoccupied with her college boyfriend, Jimmy Nguyen (WILL YUN LEE), who's meeting the Avilas for the first time.

He's told his Vietnamese family that he can't get away from college, a point that only further upsets his mother, Trinh (JOAN CHEN), who doesn't understand where she went wrong in raising her kids. Among them is Jenny (KRISTY WU) who's adopted the American culture wholeheartedly but upset the family upon their discovery of a condom among her belongings, while her brother, Gary (JIMMY PHAM), has been hiding a gun under his bed.

Meanwhile, over at the Seelig household, parents Ruth (LAINIE KAZAN) and Herb (MAURY CHAYKIN) are trying to cope with the pairing of their adult daughter, Rachel (KYRA SEDGWICK) and her longtime lesbian lover, Carla (JULIANNA MARGULIES), and hope to keep that relationship secret from other visiting family members. As the various families assemble and then prepare and consume their Thanksgiving feasts, they all must then deal with the various family concerns and issues that arise over the holiday.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Despite claims to the contrary, many films originate from interesting and thus potentially bankable ideas rather than similarly described characters. That's because ideas are easier to sell to investors, studio heads, stars and ultimately audiences in hopes of getting all of those parties involved in the making and then viewing of any given film.

As such, characters often get the short shrift when it comes to creative attention and fleshing out in the pre-production phase. Thus, that leaves that responsibility falling onto the shoulders of those hired to portray them. Taking all of that into account, it's not surprising then that many characters - especially those of the supporting or secondary variety - often show up on the screen undercooked, if you will, and certainly less than three-dimensional.

It's that much more remarkable and surprising then that writer/director Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") and co-screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges (Chadha's husband who's making his feature debut) have managed to fashion not just the usual two or three major characters who are developed enough to be interesting and engaging, but at least sixteen of them out of a reported total of more than forty speaking parts.

If that sounds like the making of a film by the likes of "cast herders" Robert Altman ("Nashville") or Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia"), this crisscrossing, interconnected and multi-plot story certainly owes its cinematic heritage to those big cast films that paved the way for it.

While such pictures often feel like they need a scorecard, flowchart or identification posters to keep the multitude of characters and stories straight, Chadha wisely avoids that by separating the film's four major stories into distinct ethnic groups. Although that may sound like the film has racial undertones, the sophomore director has made sure to give each group a fair and equal shake, with none being vilified or given preferential treatment over the others.

Besides, the story takes place in Los Angeles, the ultimate melting pot of cultural and ethnic diversity. The setting and melting pot analogy aren't accidental, however, as Chadha continues another cinematic tradition of using food and the preparation of it as something of a metaphor for life and familial matters. With the unifying plot here being Thanksgiving as celebrated by those various groups, the fit is perfect.

Despite what sounds like a liberal borrowing from many other films and thus the possibility of tasting like reheated cinematic leftovers, Chadha manages to create an entertaining and engaging film that easily stands on its own, and may just have the most enjoyable food scenes since "Big Night."

Notwithstanding that food angle but like most "home for the holidays" type films (including the Holly Hunter/Robert Downey Jr. film of that exact name), this one elicits both its humor and drama from family dynamics and conflict. While both have their merits and strong points, the humor works better than the drama here.

That's simply because the latter often teeters along the fine line of compelling drama and melodrama and occasionally feels more forced, contrived and obligatory compared to the humor and fun - including some highly enjoyable food preparation montages set to an ethnically retooled version of "Wipeout" -- that seem to flow from the proceedings in a more natural and thus agreeable fashion.

The aura of melodrama becomes more prominent in the film's second half when the filmmakers seem compelled to turn up the heat of the conflict in order to bring about the cathartic completion of various subplots. While that doesn't necessarily ruin the film - although the "surprise" ending nearly does from being too cute and unbelievable in both concept and execution - the melodramatic moments do begin to give parts of the film the feeling that they were left in the oven too long and thus got a tad overcooked.

The story, of course, is present mainly to allow the characters to do their thing and that's where Chadha and her film excel. While the sheer number of characters inevitably results in few of them getting as much screen time as they probably deserve and some of them - including the twelve main ones - paling a bit in comparison to others, for the most part they're an interesting and engaging collection of people.

Among the best are those played by Alfre Woodard ("Down in the Delta," "Mumford") and Dennis Haysbert ("Love and Basketball," "Love Field") as a married couple dealing with their estranged son, his busybody grandmother and their own tenuous relationship, as well as Mercedes Ruehl ("Big," "The Fisher King") and Victor Rivers ("The Mask of Zorro," "Amistad") as a separated couple at odds over getting back together again.

Meanwhile, Kyra Sedgwick ("Phenomenon," "Something to Talk About") and Julianna Margulies ("The Newton Boys," TV's "ER") plays a lesbian couple whose pairing leads to strife and comedic complications within a conservative/traditional Jewish family, and Joan Chen ("Heaven and Earth," "The Last Emperor") tries to figure out where she went wrong in raising her kids (in her opinion) including one played by Will Yun Lee (making his debut after parts in various TV shows) who's dating one of the other family's daughters.

They, and many of the other performers get a lot of mileage out of some limited screen time, and most viewers will probably enjoy getting to know them and observing their various stories. Although some viewers may compare the film to a well-crafted sitcom pilot (especially since we come out feeling like we know some of the characters so well) and others may dislike the more dramatic and melodramatic second half, Chadha manages to infuse enough humor and fun moments into the film that most viewers will probably enjoy what it has to offer. While not a tremendous piece of filmmaking, it's certainly enjoyable and entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation and thus a rating of 7 out of 10.




Reviewed November 13, 2000 / Posted November 22, 2000


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