A talented ensemble cast brings an extremely authentic family dynamic to "What's Cooking?," a satisfying four-course cross-section of ethnic American clans gathering for their Thanksgiving dinners.
Conceived by director Gurinder Chadha as a celebration of diversity, the film opens with an ironic shot of an advertisement on the side of a Los Angeles bus featuring an airbrushed white-bread family carving a turkey. Chadha then moves inside the bus to show the rainbow of races living together in the area, then on into a grocery store, where she picks up her first story in which a young Mexican-American man (Douglas Spain) bumps into his exiled father (Victor Rivers) and invites him home for Thanksgiving dinner.
This doesn't sit too well with his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), who had kicked Rivers out after discovering he'd had an affair. But she's prepared to make the best of it as her huge family gathers for their traditional daylong holiday preparations, mixing turkey with a cornucopia of Latino delicacies.
Meanwhile, her college student daughter (Isidra Vega) has brought home her boyfriend (Will Yun Lee) -- who is Asian -- to meet the family. But to be there with her, he's lied to his own family, insisting he must stay at school and cram for finals.
Lee's disappointed and stress-thriving mother is played by Joan Chen, who is as the same time in another kitchen whipping up another mixed-cuisine feast for her brood -- a Vietnamese family divided over the parent's strict traditionalism. Chen's teenage daughter (Kristy Wu) is a very American girl with a white boyfriend, which is only one point of contention that rises in the course of the day.
Another family is headed by Alfre Woodard, who is trying to pull off a beautiful dinner under the critical eye of her disapproving mother-in-law (Ann Weldon), who questions everything from her menu to her parenting skills. Her husband (Dennis Haysbert) can, of course, do no wrong in his mother's eyes even though their son isn't coming home for Thanksgiving because the two men have had a falling out over the son's politics and career choices.
Maury Chaykin is the patriarch in the fourth parallel story, about a Jewish couple who aren't quite ready to admit to themselves that the woman (Julianna Margulies) their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) brought home from San Francisco is more than just a roommate.
Other complications arise in each story, but underneath it all there is a genuine air of love and respect in all four households. And, by the way, the food is so tantalizing you'll want to chow down the minute the credits roll.
Even though the circumstances seem contrived at times and Chadha feels the need to fabricate an artificial, stage-prop climax toward the end, the performances in "What's Cooking?" play so real the film can be forgiven a little for trying too hard. (Harder to forgive is the soundtrack, which features surfer songs rendered in stereotypically ethnic instrumentations during montage kitchen scenes.)
It would take up too much space here to go through the huge cast trying to single out actors who deserve praise for the expressive details that bring such truth to the picture. Suffice it to say everyone mentioned by name above give their characters detailed shading as if each of them is the film's main protagonist, and they do it without showboating or scene-stealing.
"What's Cooking?" may not be the best Thanksgiving movie ever made (in that category I'd make an argument for "Home for the Holidays"), but it is a gratifying expression of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American family tradition, no matter what kind of American you may be.