What’s Cooking (2000): Gurinder Chadha’s Valentine to Cultural Diversity that Defines Los Angeles

A valentine to the cultural diversity that defines Los Angeles as a new kind of city, Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking is an extremely broad, highly accessible comedy that contrasts four large and dynamic families residing on the same street: black, Latino, Jewish and Asian.

Though often enjoyable, it’s an old-fashioned, feel-good movie whose significance is more sociological than cinematic.

A terrific ensemble, headed by Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Mercedes Ruehle, Julianna Margulies, and Kyra Sedwick elevates a colorful mosaic that in its lack of subtlety and obvious messages is only one notch above a Lifetime telepic. Theatrical prospects are solid for a film with a strong appeal for women that may do small numbers theatrically, but holds brighter future on cable, video and other ancillary markets.

With the exception of Woody Allen’s terrific Hannah and Her Sisters, which is framed by two Thanksgiving celebrations, Thanksgiving movies have not featured well, as was demonstrated a few years ago by Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holiday. Commercial appeal is further truncated by the fact that the logical theatrical window for such stories is short, basically the first weeks of November. What’s Cooking is likely to face the same problems of other specific holiday-themed movies.

A follow-up to Chadha’s well-received Bhaji on the Beach, What’s Cooking exhibits the kind of fascination that outsiders like the director (born in Kenya of Indian descent and educated in London) have with L.A. as a city of the future, one in which the family is still the central institution in communal life, though what’s constitutes a modern, healthy family life has radically changed.

In a snapshot-like manner, helmer and her gifted lenser, Jong Lin, introduces the characters, placing them in various multi-racial locals, from vibrant streets to busy buses to colorful video stores to the kitchens and dining rooms of four households, where most of the action takes place.

Ronald is (Dennis Haysbert), a spin doctor for a Republican governor, is the head of the Williams, on the surface a picture-perfect African American clan. Beautiful wife Audrey (Alfre Woodard) picks his mother at the airport and together the two women begin preparations for their WASPish guests–highlighting one of the film’s dominant motifs, intergenerational strifes, here translated into tradition versus modernity in cooking.

Determined to have his whole family together for a traditional dinner, youngster Latino Athony Avila (Douglas Spain) invites his philandering father (Victor Rivers), unbeknownst to his mother Elizabeth (Mercedes Ruehl), a teacher who’s having a clandestine affair with a colleague at school.

A different kind of chaos prevails in the Jewish household of Seelings (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin): Their daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedwick) has brought home her lover Carla (Julianna Margulies), forcing them to face her lesbianism and unexpected pregnancy in front of nosy and gossipy Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris).

Ever since Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) made America her home, she feels she’s losing control over her kids: She finds condoms in daughter Jenny’s (Kristy Wu) jacket, realizes that oldest son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee) is not exactly busy at the college library as he says, and later discovers that her second son Gary (Jimmy Pham) has hidden a gun under his bed.

Since the script, co-written by Chadha and hubby Paul Mayeda Berges (an Angelino of Japanese origins) contains at least 40 speaking parts, the structure is schematic and not all the characters equally well developed. Of the four kinships onscreen, the Asian-American is the weakest and their segments also suffers from a manipulative and uncalled subplot, in which youngest son Joey (Brennan Louie) begins playing with the gun.

It would have been less melodramatic if the filmmakers found a more inventive way for the various families to get out of their houses–and respective problems–and interact with one another. The gun is used as a unifying element in the same way that Altman’s Short Cuts used an earthquake and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia a surreal rain of frogs, to mention two recent tapestries set in L.A., to bring the disparate, self-absorbed characters of their movies together.

Even so, Chadha’s compassionately humanistic approach is unmistakably evident in a story that takes marginal characters in American society–and movies–such as Hispanics and Vietnamese immigrants, and put them at the center, as legitimate, new kind of protagonists. Indeed, in this and other respects, the novelty and merits of this mosaic are political rather than filmic. For one thing, race is taken as given, not as a problem, and interracial couples (of various combos) is presented as a matter of fact. Unlike Spike lee’s explosive drama, Do the Right Thing, made exactly 10 years ago, What’s Cooking preaches for co-existence rather than separatism and conflict between racial communities.

Perhaps more importantly, at a time when the American public is sick and tired of watching dysfunctional families onscreen, it’s refreshing to see three-generational families congregating and dealing with problems that are not defined by their race. The only jarring exception is heavy stereotyping of the Jewish clan.

Since the mode of presentation is cross-cutting, some viewers may complain of excessive use of parallel montages, with detailed depictions of how each family buys, stuffs, and eats their turkey. And while some of the food preparation has a built-in seductive element, What’s Cooking lacks the allure of such recent food movies as Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night, or Eat Drink Man Woman (also shot by Jong Lin).

Tech credits for what seems a low-budgeter are proficient, but what makes pic more tolerable and occasionally charming is its likable characters, splendidly acted by an appealing ensemble that’s too long to recite her by name. A movie of many good moments (if not scenes), What’s Cooking joins the league of Mick Jackson’s L.A. Story as one of the most heartening love poems to the city of angels.