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WHAT'S COOKING

SYNOPSIS:
In the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, four households from different ethnic communities celebrate Thanksgiving amidst family tensions. Ruth and Herb Seelig (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) aren't sure how to respond when their daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) brings home her lesbian lover, Carla (Julianna Margulies). Audrey Williams (Alfre Woodard) has a problem with her husband Ronald (Dennis Haysbert), an aide to the conservative California governor. Elizabeth Avila (Mercedes Ruehl) is furious when her estranged husband Javier (Victor Rivers) shows up, invited by their son Anthony (Douglas Spain). And Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) is distraught when she finds out that her daughter Jenny (Kristy Wu) has a condom in her jacket pocket and her son Gary (Jimmy Pham) is hiding a gun.

"There's so much to enjoy in this big-hearted, wonderfully entertaining film it's hard to know where to start. Truth is a good place. What's Cooking rings true at every turn as the tale of four different-looking but ultimately very similar families unfolds on that most American of days. Skilfully interweaving action from four venues with a cast of dozens, director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha beautifully captures the universal truths of family life as turkeys roast and people talk. This is a generous film about generation and culture clashes that allows everyone's voice to be heard while some truly mouth-watering food is prepared. We know why Mrs Nguyen's very Americanised daughter rolls her eyes at the sight of chilli paste on the turkey - "why does it have to taste like everything else we eat," she moans - while we also feel for her mother who is doing the best she can to keep the family together. It's painful for Rachel to pretend her girlfriend Carla is just her roommate in front of her relatives but we sympathise with her parents who are from a generation and community that simply doesn't know how to handle their daughter's sexual preference. There is a lot more cooking here than I could even begin to describe, all of it absorbing, much of it humorous and none of it falling into sentimentality that so often plagues this kind of film. The extensive cast perform wonderfully with special kudos going to a quartet of splendid female performances: Joan Chen (gracefully moving into mother roles), Lainie Kazan, Alfre Woodard and Mercedes Ruehl who is superb as a wronged woman suddenly holding all the cards. A crowd-pleaser with substance, What's Cooking is a treat not to be missed.
Richard Kuipers

"What's Cooking? This film is! It simmers in the first half-hour, as characters evolve and frictions boil beneath the surface. Mothers are busy preparing lavish dinners, but by the time guests arrive and the turkey is served, deep-seated frictions have erupted. This charming, sprawling piece of urban melodrama from former documentary maker Gurinder Chadha - an English woman of Indian descent - is proof that few Americans can see their country as clearly as an outsider. Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Redford managed to reflect urban misery with Magnolia and Ordinary People respectively. But didn't Ang Lee do it superbly with The Ice Storm? Or Sam Mendes with American Beauty? These films address issues of family ties behind closed doors. Chadha achieves it to lesser perfection through an ensemble cast and a simple, almost documentary style approach. Similar to the culinary delights and personal secrets revealed in Chocolat, What's Cooking? is, firstly, a lot of fun. Frumpy big momma type Ann Weldon drives daughter-in-law Alfre Woodard crazy by watching over every stage of her cooking ritual. Comic tension mounts between Kyra Sedgewick and her crusty parents as they grin and bear the lesbian love affair she's brought home for the holiday. Women do all the work; men sit around drinking beer and watching the ball game on TV. A fine chauvinistic tradition indeed. Secondly, unlike the afore-mentioned white Anglo-Saxon films, What's Cooking? is a celebration of multiculturalism, enveloping a heady mix of race, sex, class, and generation gaps that is the changing tapestry of modern American (Western) culture. This tension builds to a nicely handled - but overly sweet - crescendo. When everything comes out in the wash, they come out looking roses; and that's like seeing things with rose coloured glasses. As such, What's Cooking? is rough around the edges, and looks it in the filming, editing, and dialogue. Much seems done in one take, with a fair helping of ad lib. However imperfect, it's an immensely enjoyable and satisfying experience, with solid performances all round (though the underrated Julianna Margulies is wasted with just a few lines), and a scene-stealing Estelle Harris, looking every bit the freaky, caricatured mother of George Castanza from Seinfeld. Imagine that for an in-law!
Shannon J Harvey

"I'll admit that the modern genre of the 'food film' (e.g. Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate) does little or nothing for me. In What's Cooking? the camera lingers avidly as fat, pink turkeys are stuffed, succulent potatoes mashed, golden apple pie brought out of the oven - it's like leafing through the pages of a glossy recipe book. As with pornography, the final effect is oddly frustrating, because what's the point of drooling over food you can't eat? Of course, food here isn't just food - it's also a key site of cultural meanings and practices. While all the families in What's Cooking have roasted turkey for Thanksgiving, each prepares it in a different way. According to the director, Gurinder Chadha, this scrupulous multiculturalism means that 'race is not an issue' in the film. Actually, race is the central issue, as her compare-and-contrast structure makes us acutely aware. Moreover, each of the largely independent subplots is designed to teach us specific lessons about related topics like politics, sexuality, and generational conflict. Despite the schematic political correctness and lack of visual style, the film conveys a lot of warmth, and some feeling for the mundane complexities of family relationships. There are good performances: Mercedes Ruehl is funny and attractive, and Dennis Haysbert brings a measured authority to what could easily have been a blandly unsympathetic role. Other characters are stock types, or too broadly conceived and played (Estelle Harris, reprising her Jewish mother role from Seinfeld, provides one example). And by cutting busily from one set of actors to another Chadher works to defuse tensions and intensities, enforcing an upbeat, celebratory mood. Of course the desire to celebrate cultural differences and mutual tolerance is impeccable. But this brings me back to my first point: the objects we might desire in real life aren't necessarily those we want to see onscreen. What's the point of drooling over food you can't eat?
Jake Wilson

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

WHAT'S COOKING (PG)
(US)

CAST: Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, Maury Chaykin, Victor Rivers, Dennis Haysbert, Douglas Spain, Lainie Kazan, Ann Weldon, Eric George, Maria Carmen, A Martinez

DIRECTOR: Gurinder Chadha

PRODUCER: Jeffrey Taylor

SCRIPT: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jong Lin

EDITOR: Janice Hampton

MUSIC: Craig Pruess

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Stuart Blatt

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: New Vision

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 17, 2001

VIDEO RELEASE: October 24, 2001

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: 21st Century Pictures Video







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