What’s Cooking

 Thanksgiving is an odd American holiday. A nation composed of immigrants from around the world expects to sit down to a dinner table with an extended family to consume a strange combination of relatively bland foods — roast turkey and dressing with sweet and mashed potatoes — made palatable by the addition of tangy cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. In What’s Cooking?, directed by Gurinder Chadha, we laugh uproariously at the consequences of the yearly custom by viewing short cuts of four families who live south of Hollywood (near Pico & Fairfax)—the Avilas (Mexican), the Nguyens (Vietnamese), the Seeligs (German Jews), and the Williamses (African Americans). Clearly, the Seeligs have lived longest in the neighborhood, perhaps fifty years, but they have never met their most recent neighbors, who live on opposite corners of Genesee Avenue. Of the forty of so characters in the film, perhaps the best known are Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, A Martinez, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Segwick, and Alfre Woodard. Mrs. Avila is a schoolteacher. The Nguyens run a multilingual video store. The Seeligs are retirees, and Mr. Seelig’s favorite pastime is a 105º hot tub. Mr. Williams is an aide to the reactionary Republican governor; his wife is an attorney. We first view someone throwing paint over the California governor to protest his anti-immigrant, anti-minority policies. Next, we become acquainted with the guests invited by the families, which span four generations. The Mexicans provide a place at the table for a good-looking Vietnamese boyfriend of one of the daughters, the estranged husband of the family, and the new macho boyfriend of the wife. The Nguyens invite no guests but shut the door to three high school friends of the youngest son because he has hidden a gun under his bed. Mr. Seelig invite his old-fashioned parents, and their daughter and Lesbian lover fly into town from San Francisco. The Williamses receive the husband’s fussy mother, who arrives from out of town, and a white couple (business associates of his) and their politically correct daughter; their rebellious son shows up later. In short, What’s Cooking is not just food but a host of family problems. In short, ethnicity is not the only aspect of diversity, as two families cope with adultery, one with same-sex attraction, and children in the remaining family do not dare to tell their parents that their son and daughter have befriended a girlfriend and a boyfriend who are not of their ethnic background. As the film’s tagline well describes the plot, “Thanksgiving — A celebration of food, tradition and relative insanity.” We observe that the turkey is placed at the center of the meal, but the ethnic (and nouvelle) cuisines contribute most of the side dishes; the exception is that the Nguyens, unaccustomed to oven cooking, burn the turkey while providing two tubs of KFC chicken for the younger generation. When Anthony Avila invites his father, who left home after having an affair with a cousin Rosa, to the party, not knowing that his mother planned to introduce her new boyfriend to the family. When the boyfriend arrives, the father has a showdown with the mother, who in turn tells him to leave. The Nguyens discover a condom in their daughter’s clothing and have a fit, not realizing that schools give out condoms to everyone, and the daughter is humiliated. A similar fit ensues when the daughter discovers that her brother has a gun under his bed; although he claims that he is keeping the gun for someone else, he fails to make his parents understand that school tensions may require him to join a gang and to keep firearms ready just in case. The Seeligs are overtly sensible about their Lesbian daughter while privately upset, unlike the grandparents; but they lose their cool temporarily when their daughter announces that she is pregnant, at least until she admits that the sperm donor is their gay son. The arrival of the Williams’s son uncorks the family’s dirty linen—the father had an affair with a coworker, the son has dropped out of college in part because he believes that his father is a hypocrite in working for a “racist” governor. Indeed, the son was the one who threw paint at the governor. Although the Williams family appears to hold together despite the tensions at the dinner table, there is a “For Sale” sign in front of the house, indicating that all is not well. All of a sudden the sound of a shot breaks the continuity, and members of all four families pour into the street. The youngest Nguyen, believing that the gun was a toy, shot a bullet through a window. When everyone realizes that nothing serious has occurred, they return to the Thanksgiving parties, and the film ends. What the film says is that Los Angeles is a melting pot in many ways for the youngest generations, while the older generations are having some difficulty, as the latter hardly know their neighbors, while the children meet diverse people at school. In short, there is hope for Los Angeles after the urban riot of 1994, provided that everyone stops to look at the laugh-a-minute humor in all the adjustments and problems that quickly come to the fore on Thanksgiving as the generations become reacquainted with one another, the older ones shocked as usual by the younger. When I left the cinema at a location not far from the venue for the film, I overheard one 70ish New York Jewish accented woman say to another, “I saw nothing funny in the movie: They all had problems.” However, I personally have not laughed so much during a film since my latest screening of one of the Marx Brothers classics. Ethnic humor has been raised to new heights in What’s Cooking? MH
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