Well, for one reason or another, the characters in What's Cooking? descend upon one another's mostly upscale Southern California homes to get to the bottom of this mystery, and, happily, their investigation is largely successful. Helmed with a superb balance of pathos and pluck by Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach), the movie defies all reasonable odds by focusing on families sorting out their manifold issues over Thanksgiving dinner ... without becoming a dull, painful carbuncle of a motion picture (see: Home for the Holidays). Directing from her screenplay (co-written with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges), Chadha -- a Kenyan-born Englishwoman of Indian descent -- stares with wide eyes at traditions the average American takes for granted. Much as an Asian grandmother stands transfixed by an upright cylinder of cranberry sauce, the director leads us through the holiday's bounty and bombast with the dual sensitivity of a fascinated outsider who now resides inside. Imagine pop group Cibo Matto's first album as a feature film, and you're in range.
Cribbing a bit from Ang Lee -- especially Eat Drink Man Woman (food, family, life, hoorah!) and The Ice Storm (unbearable repression, fiercely accurate interpretation of the holiday from a precocious youngster) -- Chadha and Berges' script gushes with humanity, but (wipe sweat from brow here) doesn't devolve into excessively sentimental junk. By focusing on four families -- the hopeful Avilas, the sternly affectionate Nguyens, the wistful Seeligs, the upwardly mobile Williamses -- we are afforded immediate glimpses into Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish, and African-American households. But stopping there would equal triteness, so guests of all persuasions -- lesbian, goth, gun-toting, WASP, and freakishly orange-haired, to name but a few -- are mixed in with aplomb. It's the sort of movie anybody can criticize ("clichéd, predictable racial caricatures"), but from the project's blanketing approach stems its very strength: Anybody who watches it will find himself relating to plenty of non-culture-specific resonances.
While the movie has no specific center, we can start with Mercedes Ruehl, just because she's so immensely cool on screen. As Elizabeth Avila, estranged from her husband, Javier (Victor Rivers), over a sexual indiscretion, Ruehl brings a deliciously restrained fire to the role, sorting out the responsibilities of a single mother while welcoming Jimmy Nguyen (Will Yun Lee) into the house to have his tight butt examined by both the ladies of the house and the director herself. Meanwhile, the Nguyen family, headed by the stern, somewhat paranoid Trinh (Joan Chen) and Duc (Francois Chau), find themselves struggling to prepare a traditional turkey while fretting over their other children, the newly sexually active Jenny (Kristy Wu) and their son Gary (Jimmy Phan), who is harboring an explosive secret under his bed.
As those tamales and spring rolls are being meticulously readied (captured in loving detail by cinematographer Jong Lin), we also encounter Audrey and Ronald Williams (Alfre Woodard and Dennis Haysbert), who are not only welcoming white associates (Shareen Mitchell, Gregory Itzin) and their sharp-tongued charge (Mariam Parris) into their home, but are also contending with emotional wounds, a mad mother-in-law (Ann Weldon) obsessed with macaroni, and -- most painfully -- a battle of ideologies between Ronald and his fiery son, Michael. Perhaps the least volatile of these households is the Seeligs', where Ruth (Lainie Kazan) and Herb (Maury Chaykin) try to plaster denial over the lesbian love affair of their daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) and her saucy partner, Carla (Julianna Margulies). By the end of this day, as the corporate parade in New York goes largely unnoticed (unlike those utterly vital football telecasts), almost every possible politic gets its moment in the glaring light of interrogation.
If this were all the movie were about -- digging meanly into people's souls at holiday time -- we'd have, at best, a swaggering farce like Richard LaGravenese's The Ref. What makes this movie special is the meticulous attention placed on each of its characters, employing them not in the traditional "melting pot" manner that is so common, but as part of a grand mosaic that actually seems to be worth sharing. There are a lot of laughs and some sorrow in What's Cooking?, and plenty of fear and distrust, but Chadha's modus operandi is to bake these ingredients in a giant casserole of social osmosis. As at any dinner, you may flinch or yawn occasionally, and the director needs to get over her desire to play judge, jury, and executioner to the male libido, but the work is otherwise a smashing success.
While Craig Pruess' ingenious multiculti reworking of "Wipeout" plays throughout the kitchens, there's no denying that this is a great family movie. Literally.