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[whitespace] 'What's Cooking?'
Talking Turkey: Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) her daughter, Jenny (Kristy Wu), and Grandma Nguyen discuss their Thanksgiving meal.


Four families face Thanksgiving in the bright but sprawling 'What's Cooking?'

By Richard von Busack

LOS ANGELES, in its polyglot splendor, looks very appealing behind the titles in Gurinder Chadha's film What's Cooking? What other--white--directors often treat as mongrelization, director Chadha sees as appetizing. Unfortunately, just like L.A. itself, this movie is all over the map. But among its discursive moments are scenes and snippets of Alfre Woodard, brilliant as always, and the handsome Mercedes Ruehl cast as a Chicana mom.

What's Cooking? has a modest aim. It shows Thanksgiving in four different ethnic styles--four different families in four separate houses try to bury their various hatchets long enough to eat together.

At the Avila's, it's the first Thanksgiving without dad (Victor Rivers), who got banished for an affair with his wife's cousin; Elizabeth (Ruehl), the mom of the house, doesn't know that her former husband is showing up unannounced.

The Vietnamese immigrant family the Nguyens--led by the matriarch Trinh (Joan Chen)--are interrupted with discoveries of a condom and a pistol among their children's possessions. Meanwhile, the Seeligs (Lainie Kazan, Maury Chaykin), an old Jewish couple famishing for grandchildren, are suffering their way through the annual visit by their lesbian daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) and her live-in lover (Julianna Margulies).

Lastly, the Williams are an African American family in turmoil. Audrey (Woodard) is being driven insane by her mother-in-law (Ann Weldon), and her son, Michael (Eric K. George), is in temporary disgrace and not expected at the table.

The problem is the usual problem in these darting sketch films. Not every sequence gets the development it deserves. In addition, Chadha's script (with co-writer and ex-UCSC student Paul Mayeda Berges) lays it too clearly and too often on the line. Characters you'd like to know more about are so busy cooking that you can't get a good look at them, and within moments Chadha (the Anglo-Indian director of Bhaji on the Beach) has cut elsewhere.

The subplot about the Nguyens' gun takes the film away from the light social comic spirit of Chadha at her best, without really adding any urban realism. And the plot line of the Jewish parents kvetching over their kids is one that's been served and reheated one too many times.

Yet What's Cooking? is superior to the usual pastiche of Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Woodard is compulsively watchable. When will some director give Woodard a whole movie? Her nerviness is what Thanksgiving is all about; my own mom used to go mad as a hatter every fourth Thursday in November.

The smooth montage of the different families tucking in complements the well-made food-porn scenes. I liked the compromise of a turkey crimson with Asian barbecue spices on one side, and bare and pale on the other; a wiener dog waddling over and having his own peaceful dinner of a turkey leg as big as he is; and a cellular phone chiming its interruption to the prayer of grace over the meal. What's Cooking? isn't all sweetness and forgiveness; it's a big spread in which the half-baked parts can be overlooked because of what the cook managed to serve up well.

What's Cooking? (PG-13; 106 min.), directed by Gurinder Chadha, written by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, photographed by Jong Lin and starring Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen and Mercedes Ruehl, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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