A valentine to the cultural diversity that defines Los Angeles as a new kind of city, Gurinder Chadha’s “What’s Cooking?” is a broad, highly accessible comedy that juxtaposes four dynamic families — black, Latino, Jewish and Asian — residing on the same street. Though often enjoyable, it’s an old-fashioned, feel-good movie whose significance is more sociological than cinematic. In its lack of subtlety, this colorful mosaic set during Thanksgiving is only a notch above a Lifetime telepic, but a terrific ensemble elevates the proceedings. The film will appeal strongly to femme auds and may do small numbers theatrically, while a brighter future awaits on cable and video.
A follow-up to Chadha’s well-received “Bhaji on the Beach,” “What’s Cooking?” reflects the kind of fascination with L.A. that many outsiders like the director (born in Kenya of Indian descent and educated in London) experience. Los Angeles is a city of the future — one in which the family is still the central institution of communal life but the definition of family has radically changed.
In a snapshot-like manner, helmer and her gifted lenser, Jong Lin, introduce the characters, placing them in various locales, from vibrant streets, busy buses and colorful videostores to the kitchens and dining rooms of four households, where most of the action takes place.
Ronald (Dennis Haysbert), a spin doctor for a Republican governor, is the head of the Williams family, on the surface a picture-perfect African American clan. Beautiful wife Audrey (Alfre Woodard) picks up 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 strife, here expressed through the conflict between traditional and innovative cooking.
Determined to have his whole family together for a traditional holiday dinner, young Latino Anthony 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 the Seelings (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin): Their daughter, Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick), has brought home her lover, Carla (Julianna Margulies), forcing them to face her lesbianism in front of nosy, gossipy Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris).
Since making the U.S. her home, Vietnamese Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) feels she’s losing control over her kids: She finds condoms in the jacket of daughter Jenny (Kristy Wu), realizes that oldest son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee) is not exactly busy at the college library as he says, and discovers that her second son, Gary (Jimmy Pham), has hidden a gun under his bed.
Co-written by Chadha and hubby Paul Mayeda Berges (an Angeleno of Japanese origin), the script contains at least 40 speaking parts and is schematic in structure; not all characters are well developed. Of the four family strands, the Asian-American is the weakest. Its segments also suffer from a manipulative subplot in which youngest son Joey (Brennan Louie) begins playing with his brother’s gun.
Pic would have been less melodramatic if the filmmakers had found a more inventive way for the characters to escape 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, bringing together disparate, self-absorbed characters.
Even so, Chadha’s compassionate, humanistic approach is unmistakably evident in a story that takes marginal characters in American society — and movies — and puts them center stage. Indeed, in this and other respects, the novelty and merits of this tapestry are political rather than filmic. For one thing, differences in race or ethnicity are a given, not an issue or problem, and interracial couples are presented in a matter-of-fact way.
Unlike Spike Lee’s explosive “Do the Right Thing,” made 10 years ago, “What’s Cooking?” emphasizes coexistence rather than conflict. Perhaps more important, it’s refreshing to see multi-generation families congregating and dealing with problems that are not defined by their race or ethnicity — the only jarring exception is the heavy stereotyping of the Jewish clan.
Because the mode of presentation is cross-cutting, some viewers may complain that parallel montages are used excessively, with detailed depiction of how each family buys, stuffs and eats the holiday 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” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (also shot by Jong Lin).
Tech credits for what seems a low-budgeter are proficient. But above all, it’s the film’s likable characters, splendidly acted by an appealing ensemble, that lend it charm. A movie of many good moments (if not scenes), “What’s Cooking?” joins Mick Jackson’s “L.A. Story” as one of the bigscreen’s most heartening love poems to the city of angels.