Review of “What’s Cooking”

Carla (Julianna Margulies), Ruth (Lainie Kazan), and Rachel (Krya Sedgwick)

What's Cooking (2000) is the kind of movie that not only celebrates diversity, it serves it up as a nine-course meal — literally. Written and directed by Guriner Chadha (who also wrote and directed the current indie hit Bend it Like Beckham) and featuring a star-studded cast that includes Joan Chen, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Mercedes Ruehl, Julianna Margulies, and Kyra Sedgwick, the story revolves around four neighboring L.A. families of different ethnic origins — Vietnamese-American, African-American, Jewish and Latino — as each family celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday in their own unique and drama-filled way. It's an interracial-lovefest, dysfunction-transcends-race cinematic version of "it's a small world after all."

What's Cooking is as much about generational divides, however, as racial ones, as the children in each family struggle with the difference between their world and the one their parents grew up in. Consequently, the children in every family keep their distance from their parents because, as one character summarizes, "I can't be myself with them." It's also a commentary on how isolated we have become from our neighbors and families in these days of sprawling suburbs.

Enter the Jewish couple Herb and Ruth Seelig (played by Maury Chaykin and Lainie Kazan) and their daughter Rachel (played by Sedgwick), who is visiting from San Francisco with her lover Carla (played by Margulies). Rachel's parents know about Carla's relationship with their daughter, but prefer to try and ignore it, as evidenced by the fact that the women are put in two twin beds in Rachel's old room whenever they visit.

There is much wringing of hands and whispered conversations along the lines of "what did we do wrong?" whenever Herb and Ruth are confronted by evidence that forces them out of their denial (like when Ruth brings them cappuccinos one morning and finds them sharing the same twin bed), but very little direct discussion about it with their daughter.

All four stories unfold over Thanksgiving weekend, with the usual preparation-for-the-big-day montage of food made more interesting by the cultural variations on the big feast. There is also a big helping of drama (sometimes too much), almost always caused by someone's failure to communicate. The film attempts to offset this with moments of wisdom wrapped in levity (such as when one character quips "I guess you can't call yourself a family if someone isn't speaking to someone else") and mostly, it succeeds.

Thanksgiving in the Seelig family this year is every lesbian couple's version of hell: a big family dinner in which Rachel and Carla are supposed to pretend they're "just roommates" because Rachel's parents don't want the extended family members to know the truth. So of course, much misunderstanding ensues and the dinner alternates between comical, uncomfortable and painful as her elderly Aunt Bea pesters Rachel about why she's not married yet and her hard-of-hearing but very opinionated Uncle David yammers on about his support for a racist, anti-gay politician.

When Rachel can't take it anymore and tells the family her big secret–that she and Carla are having a baby and her brother's wife's gay brother is the father–her parents are finally forced to deal with the fact that the relationship between Rachel and Carla is not going away. The reactions around the dinner table vary: Rachel's brother and his wife are extremely supportive, Rachel's parents are flabbergasted and unable to process the information; and the aunt seems to take it in stride, explaining to her husband "Rachel is a lesbian–you know, like Ellen."

Sedgwick and Margulies appear to be very comfortable around each other, and make a believable lesbian couple (aside form the fact that they're both more attractive than the average woman). Rachel and CarlaThere are no racy sex scenes, but there is a lot of physical affection between the two women and a very non-platonic kiss (in an interview included on the DVD, Kyra Sedgwick talks about how she and Margulies prepared for the role by spending time together, visiting lesbian bars, talking about what it would be like to be gay, etc.)

The lesbian storyline is progressive and realistic, if a bit predictable, and the two lesbian characters are portrayed as the most sane and well-adjusted members of the family (along with Rachel's straight-but-supportive brother). But although this film is very forward-thinking in articulating its vision of the value of diversity, it could have pushed the envelope even further by writing the lesbian characters into one of the other families. Lesbian characters in Hollywood movies are almost always white even in racially-diverse casts, which reinforces the myth already believed by many that homosexuality is a "white" problem; the decision to do the same thing in What's Cooking represents another missed opportunity to showcase the diversity of the lesbian community and to provide visibility to lesbians of color.

Overall, the storylines are engaging and skillfully intertwined, and the acting well-done. There are more than a few unnecessary scenes of overwrought drama in the film (particularly within the Vietnamese family's story), but this is balanced out by the many moments of subtlety and humor that add rich texture to the film.

The film succeeds in creating its small-world feel without hitting you over the head with it too often, and unlike many other films about family dysfunction on the holidays, which tend to lean to one extreme or the other, What's Cooking lands somewhere in-between neatly tying up all of the loose ends and leaving them all untied.

Get What's Cooking on DVD