What's Cooking

on November 17, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
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   Introduced by writer-director Gurinder Chadha as her ode to Los Angeles, "What's Cooking?" is similar to another Sundance favorite, "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," in its structure, loosely stringing together disparate characters in a mutual setting. Chadha is more successful in her attempt, ultimately revealing a common bond sturdier than random chance meetings.

   Set on one of the most volatile of family holidays, four groups of people gather for a Thanksgiving feast. The Seligs find their traditional Jewish sensibilities challenged by their daughter's progressive lifestyle and her girlfriend. The Nguyens left Vietnam to ensure a better life for their children, only to find they're in more danger here. The testosterone-charged Avilas try to deal with separation and a father who's not welcome back. And the Williamsons struggle under the strain of a father who works too hard for the state's conservative, racist governor.

   Aside from a few awkward moments, Chadha's dialogue flows easily and rings true, capturing the anger, angst and frustrations that all families go through. Superb performances--particularly Alfre Woodard's anal housewife, Julianna Margulies' sexy girlfriend, Mercedes Ruehl's liberated Latina mom and Kristy Wu's scared sister--give Chadha's words a voice and capture hearts, even with limited screen time.

   And the food--oh, the food. Not since "Big Night" have dinner and a movie been so integrally related. Chadha splices together montages of feasts that include egg rolls, tamales, macaroni and cheese and turkey. (Whatever the family's background, there's a turkey on the table.) Chadha expressed what was on every audience member's mind when she asked in the post-screening Q&A, "Who's as hungry as I am?"

   Deftly edited to transition smoothly from one family to the next, "What's Cooking?" gets a bit redundant after awhile, circling repetitively from one setting to the next. But Chadha melds comedy and tragedy so masterfully that one's laughing at and crying for the characters simultaneously, again emulating real life.

   As for Chadha's affection for the City of Angels, it may seem odd that a British woman of East Indian descent could capture the city so perfectly. Where else in the world could four families of vastly different backgrounds, traditions and lifestyles live in such close proximity and not even know the others are there? Starring Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Mercedes Ruehl, Julianna Margulies, Lainie Kazan and Kyra Sedgwick. Directed by Gurinder Chadha Written by Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Produced by Jeffrey Taylor. A Trimark release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 106 min

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