Retro-mad film review: What’s Cooking? (US, 2000)

“What’s Cooking?” by Kenyan-born Londoner Gurinder Chadha is not so much a movie as an extended version of a Food Network special on thanksgiving, but with a story, a lot of drama and a enough family issues to keep Dr. Phil busy ’til the next century.

cookingAnd if it were a food special, I imagine the title would be something like: “How different American families from different ethnic backgrounds celebrate thanksgiving” – which pretty much sums up the movie for me. In fact, a bulk of the scenes emphasize this, and there is always dialogue that casually drops such words as “Jewish”, “African-American”, “black”, to emphasize the ethnic backgrounds (in case you miss them). And if the appearance doesn’t clue you in on what race each family is from, then the dialogue will help you along: people speaking in Spanish, or Vietnamese. If you’re really slow, then how each dish is prepared will give you an idea, and the music will guide you along as well. But of course,the best way to help you identify the families would be the stereotypes, token characters and drama that litter this movie (there is nothing like stereotypes about each member of the family to really help you muddle along this one big confusing movie). In fact, There are so many things happening, so much drama going on behind thanksgiving dinners, it’s so hard to keep up (this is not surprising, as the writer-director probably grew up on a healthy diet of East Enders and Emmerdale). Think of it as an American version of the British fave “Love Actually”, but about thanksgiving, not Christmas, minus the charm. I saw so much turkey here I almost swore off turkey for the rest of my life!

The story:

Where to begin? Let me attempt to break it down for you:

There is a Jewish-American family, a Latin-American one, African-American and a Vietnamese-American family (this one’s a bit dodgy – Joan Chen is Chinese and Wil Yun Lee is Korean-American, so I thought it was a Chinese American film at first. The only ones who looked Vietnamese were the two younger kids).

The Jewish American contingent is headed by Lainie Kazan as Ruth Seelig and Maury Chaykin as Herb Seelig, the nervous parents of lesbian daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) and her hot-in-a-dark-horse-kind-of-way girlfriend, Carla (Juliana Marguiles, ER). The parents are struggling to accept the lesbian daughter and partner, and are basically worried about the stability of the relationship. Kazan’s Ruth is worried that if they break up, Rachel will end up with nothing as the house they stay in is in Carla’s name. Ruth valiantly tries to make the couple welcome, even bravely giving them breakfast (well, cappucino really) in bed, although you can tell she was not happy about it. Things make a turn for the worse when Rachel’s horrid aunt  (we’ve all had at least one of those) comes for thanksgiving dinner and proceeds to grill Rachel on her single status, which pushes Rachel further and further up a wall. This prompts her to blurt out that she is with child, which prompts an outburst from her usually tepid father that she can’t have a baby, she’s a lesbian! effectively outing her to her aunt.

The Vietnamese-Americans, the Nguyens, have their own video shop. But that is not their problem (I personally think the problem is getting Chinese Americans to play Vietnamese Americans and asking us to suspend disbelief and think Joan Chen is Vietnamese…Do you ask white people to play black people? and vice versa? Robert Downey Jr is the exception of course. But that’s just me and I digress.). The Nguyen parents’ problem is their children. Eldest son Jimmy (Wil Yun Lee) is not coming for thanksgiving, on a pretext of midterm exams, but really, he’s just across the road from their house, having dinner with his Latina girlfriend,whom he can’t bring to their house because they’re “conservative”.  Their youngest daughter, a snivelling, whiny little teenager who’s screaming half of the movie (I wanted to slap her so bad she’d go out of every frame of the film. I wanted to slap her so bad she’d get that voice of hers, especially when it was whining, and that acting, to a tolerable level). Anyway,the screaming starts when a condom is found in her coat. It continues to when the family discovers a gun in her gangster wanna-be younger brother’s room and for some inexplicable reason, she manages to sustain this screaming to excruciating levels (but not as excruciating as the acting) when her younger brother’s homies come and collect the gun. I’m surprised the younger brother didn’t have enough sense to get the gun and shoot her. Hell, I’m surprised he didn’t have enough sense to get acting lessons first.

I actually missed the well-adjusted Chinese daughters from “Saving Face” and “Red Doors” (yes, even the bland lesbian one) while I was watching this film.

The African American contingent have their own shit to deal with. Father Ronnie Williams (Dennis Haybert) and other Audrey Williams (Alfre Woodward), they be harboring some kind of African-American middle class guilt. Recovering adulterer father works for a politician working against African American welfare, mother is underappreciated daughter-in-law to an overly critical mother-in-law, and they have a son whose middle class guilt is as palpable as theirs, so palpable in fact, that he has dropped out of business school because well, “there be no blacks in that school!” (and infront of their embarassed white guests no less!). He, of course, wants to major in African American studies. If they make a sequel, he’ll probably come out as gay. Never seen anyone straight act so gay before. ^^

The pressure on Audrey/Alfre to keep the family together becomes so unbearable that when the turkey crashes to the floor and she screams out her nervous breakdown, I thought she should have been more expressive of her breakdown. I actually I wanted to scream with her, but for another reason: scream out my frustration about the flimsy material she has been given. I actually missed her in that Robert Downey Jr. flick “Heart and Souls” (absolutely adore that film!).

Of course the stereotypes pile up when we get to the Latin-American film. By this time, the director (who also happens to be the writer), doesn’t even try anymore. The macho males stay out of the kitchen, watching football, ordering the women to get them more beer, and grunt their joy at a superb tackle or goal. Meanwhile, all the women toil in the kitchen (the stereotypes just keep coming!) making turkey and exchanging gossip. The queen of this casa is Mercedes Ruehl (Lizza Avila), who is recovering from a husband who cheated on her with one of her cousins, and has now moved on by dating a white man. Her daughter is the one dating the Vietnamese American, and of course, they mistake him for Chinese and start talking to him and joking about Jacky Chan and Bruce Lee (the scenes that depict this are almost unbearable to watch). Her son is macho male Tony Avila (an unrecognizable Douglas Spain – whom I completely adored as Andre in the satirical lesbian film, “But I’m a Cheerleader”. Range, people!) who is on his way to being just like his father. Of course, tension mounts when the ultimate Alpha Male of the family, Lizzy’s ex-husband, comes storming back to their lives via thankgiving dinner, asking for Lizzy back. Except Lizzy already has a boyfriend, so you, of course, brace yourself for a major confrontation scene. Actually, I liked Mercedes Ruehl the most in this film. She played it cool, not hysterical and she was in charge of every scene.

But the real star of this show is the turkey. I have never seen so many sizes, so many different ways of cooking turkey in my life. You know this is bad if you appreciate the many possible ways of shooting a turkey (angle, lighting, shots) more than the film itself.

Take your pick from any of the many possible themes/metaphors I’ve culled from this film: Is life one big feast? One big thanksgiving party? Do we adapt the feast to our culture? There are many different interpretations of culture? I don’t know. Do I really care?

Lessons learned: Thanksgiving make you hysterical. Full stop.

This movie is as painful as a hangover. I’m going to go sleep it off now.

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