What's Cooking opens with a smile. As a slow guitar plucks "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the soundtrack, a luscious Thanksgiving turkey fills the screen. It's a delightful announcement that this uniquely American holiday, with the requisite perfection of family and food, is going to run amok in this movie, as it so often does in real life. We are not disappointed.
We meet the all-American family of the year 2000: four wonderfully extended families centering around that middle generation of wives who do all the work. The feasting table is taking shape in each house according to the prevailing ethnic specialties, but this is America, so there is a turkey in every oven.
Vietnamese, Black, Jewish, and Latino wives are cutting, slicing, chopping, and stuffing while family tensions bubble up to upset everyone except the audience, which is grateful that these squabbles belong to someone else. For every domestic mess that develops, someone in the audience laughs with "I've been there" enthusiasm.
As strain turns to discord, the wives chop and slice with increasing intensity. Food preparation becomes their refuge-from a mother-in-law, from a newly revealed gay union, from an affair, from a troubled son. Only once, when a potential tragedy is injected, is the mood of comic familiarity broken. For the most part, the movie asks only that we have a good time watching other people cope with their versions of our problems.
Be warned that you have to work hard for a while just to track the forty actors who have speaking roles, but most of them are so good that it's worth the effort. Mercedes Ruehl, with a an extra helping of Ann Bancroft-type assurance, is terrific as the Latino mom soaring in the quiet confidence that has enveloped her since her husband deserted her for another woman. Joan Chen deftly catches the worry of a Vietnamese mother for her Americanized high-school kids caught in a culture alien to her. Alfre Woodard is marvelously weary as she struggles with a too-often-absent husband and a mother-in-law, Ann Weldon, who knows exactly the way everything should be done. Ms. Weldon plays one of several grandmothers who wring laughter from their lines.
The funniest predicament of the lot falls to Kyra Sedgwick, Julianna Margolies, Lainie Kazan, Maury Chaykin, and another elder, Estelle Harris. When the gay daughter brings her lover home, these actors use perfect timing to react with intense attention to the tiniest details of the complications that will engulf them. Their performances are an achievement in comic bewilderment.
If this is beginning to sound like a woman's movie, it is indeed. The men, including Dennis Haysbert, are fine, but they are the source of the trouble, and this is a movie about women responding to male disruptions. And then, too, this is a story about the demands of creating the perfect meal for the perfect holiday, and how many men do you see chopping and slicing?
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 497
Studio : Trimark Pictures
Rating : PG-13
Running time : 1h46m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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