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what's cooking poster
click for full sized poster

What's Cooking?

Starring Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, Maury Chaykin, Victor Rivers, Dennis Haysbert, Douglas Spain
Screenplay by Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges
Directed by Gurinder Chadha

IN SHORT: A veritable feast of stories. [Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, brief language and a perilous situation. 106 minutes]

What's Cooking is a sweetly enjoyable movie set at Thanksgiving as four families celebrate the holiday in a Los Angeles neighborhood. It's a unique script (by director Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges) that runs four stories in parallel and makes only a little effort to bring all four stories together for some grand climax. Two of them cross paths now and again but the construction of the film doesn't really need this old story tactic to make it work. If you catch it, the reasoning behind this construction is buried in one line of dialogue early on. The point of it all is that the modern "traditional" Thanksgiving is anything but, no matter how hard the four families we meet try to make it so.

Here's your complimentary cheat sheet:

The Nguyens are Vietnamese immigrants, struggling hard to be as American as possible while retaining their identity. This means no dating outside the ethnic group. While the family keeps a tight leash on daughter Jenny (Kristy Wu), tolerate the behavior of middle son Gary (Jimmy Phan) and show a unique leniency towards number one son Jimmy's (Will Yun Lee) absence from the table.

Jimmy is absent 'cuz he knows the parental units would freak at the sight of his Hispanic girlfriend Gina Avila (Isidra Vega). The Avilas have their own drama going on as dad Javier (Victor Rivers) walked out on wife Elizabeth (Mercedes Ruehl) after an affair with her cousin. The marriage is a wreck and a last minute invitation from son Anthony (Douglas Spain) to dad to attend the Thanksgiving is sure to set off fireworks. Especially when mom's new boyfriend (A Martinez) shows up.

Story number three focusses on an upper middle-class African-American family. Father Ronald Williams (Dennis Haysbert) works for the Governor of California. Mom Audrey (Alfre Woodard) works hard to maintain appearances and set the perfect holiday table all the while fighting off a mother-in-law (Ann Wheldon) who hasn't truly cut the apron strings. Son Michael (Eric K. George) is the habitual angry young man, and his presence is a surprise to everybody, especially after after the stunt he pulled that morning.

Last up is the Seeligs, a nice middle class aging Jewish couple (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) who, alternately, want their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) to be happy and settled and making babies . . . despite the known fact that the girl is a lesbian, happy partnered with Carla (Julianna Marguiles click for StarTalk). Mom and Dad deal with it in different ways but the real problem is a pushy aunt Bee (Estelle Harris).

What is most pleasant and remarkable about What's Cooking is that it isn't about cooking turkey, though the bird rolls out at all four houses by the Third Act. It is a wonderfully written story that juggles four major stories and more minor substories than I can count, while giving its many actors enough detail in their characters to sink their teeth into. It takes almost no time to come up to speed and keeps comedy and drama in balance. Even if you know all the stuff I've just spilled, there's more to be discovered and some wonderful characters to be watched.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to What's Cooking?, he would have paid...


A decent dateflick. What's Cooking is sexier than you'd expect with good stories clearly told and well performed. (And the tattoo Kyra Sedgwick reveals is real. Jut thought you'd like to know.)

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