- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2000

For one reason or another, Thanksgiving never has gotten much play from Hollywood.

"Home for the Holidays" fizzled when trying to single out the day five years ago. The most interesting thing about "What's Cooking?" is that a foreign-born filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, an Englishwoman of Indian parentage, tries to overcompensate for the neglect with a shameless, four-cornered embrace of the national feast day.

Her methods are smothering the occasion with updated, politically correct solicitude and combine lavishly picturesque food displays with sitcom trifling about family loyalties and conflicts. If the nationality thing can be finessed, she might be a natural as an official government soft-soaper, perhaps with a title such as secretary of affirmation.

Nothing is too trite or bogus for Miss Chandha's holiday melting pot. She intercuts the gatherings of a quartet of family groups: black, Mexican-American, Jewish and immigrant Vietnamese. Most of the eccentricities ascribed to members of the four groups in her Los Angeles mosaic could be moved around arbitrarily to other groups without altering the cliched consistency in the slightest.

Miss Chandha even enjoys doubling up on cliches. Accidents befall two turkeys. Prodigal sons cause fleeting anxiety for Alfre Woodard — as prosperous but jumpy Audrey Williams, wife of state bureaucrat Ronald Williams (Dennis Haysbert) — and Joan Chen, who plays naturalized American Trinh Nguyen.

Two philandering husbands are deployed and scolded, one of them proudly and decisively by Latina matriarch Elizabeth Avila. She is played by the still formidable Mercedes Ruehl, who seemed to stump Hollywood after she won an Academy Award in "The Fisher King." Maybe it's simple: She can't play shrinking violets or fragile vessels.

Mrs. Nguyen's son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee) is ducking his own family in order to hang out with girlfriend Gina Avila (Isidra Vega), daughter of the indomitable Elizabeth. Saucy Jenny Nguyen (Kristy Wu) sparks one wave of hysterics by leaving a condom on the floor and then another by sneaking a rendezvous with her Anglo boyfriend at the family's store, Pico Video. Then she sets off still another by revealing the alarming object found under her brother's bed. I can say no more, but it's more explosive than an unused condom.

I seem to have ignored the Jews, but only out of pity. Ruth and Herb Seelig, played by Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin, are downcast, corpulent grandparents who seem to have been fixtures of the Fairfax neighborhood for a half-century and look about 10 minutes away from simultaneous coronaries. For starters, they play host to lesbian daughter Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick), accompanied by San Francisco consort Carla (Julianna Margulies), who can't keep her hands to herself and finds innuendo irresistible, especially when doing such things as stuffing and basting turkeys.

The Seeligs have a conventionally married son who arrives later with wife and family, but this branch of the family isn't much comfort to mom, because everything Rachel does is as peachy to them as it is Carla.

No matter which direction of the ethnic, lifestyle or geographical compass Miss Chandha elects to emphasize from scene to scene, it all amounts to a little laugh, a little cry, an arbitrary this, a redundant that, punctuated by food preparation and eventual dining, which never seems as appetizing as intended.

Perhaps the domestic drivel gets in the way of a hearty vicarious appetite. Anyway, hiring the photographer who lighted Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" didn't guarantee gastronomical dazzle.

One has no reason to doubt the sincerity of Miss Chanda's all-embracing complacency. There's even one wittily sustained bit of domestic slapstick when one of the accident-prone turkeys must be rescued after a crash landing on the dining room floor.

The filmmaker's husband and writing collaborator, Paul Mayeda Berges, is Japanese American. Are we missing more authentic impressions of what the typical Indian-American family or Japanese-American family might be up to on Thanksgiving? Probably not; it would be more of the same hokum.

TITLE: "What's Cooking?"RATING: PG-13 (occasional profanity and sexual candor, interludes of domestic conflict, fleeting nudity, subplot about a lesbian alliance)CREDITS: Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Screenplay by Miss Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Cinematography by Jong Lin. Production design by Stuart Blatt. Music by Craig Pruess.RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

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