The answer to the titular question posed by this eager-to-please indie effort from writer-director Gurinder Chandha is, ironically, both “Too little” and “Too much.” An ensemble comedy-drama about four diverse Los Angeles families–one Jewish, one Latino, one Vietnamese and one African-American–suffering the tribulations attendant to celebrating Thanksgiving, “What’s Cooking?” is certainly ambitious in terms of its breadth and construction, but too flabby in execution for its own good.
As the title suggests, the picture centers pictorially on the preparation and enjoyment of the dinners central to the four gatherings (though these sequences lack the sensual character of similar moments in films like “Babette’s Feast”), but the dramatic crux of the piece is on all the inevitably repressed antagonisms to be found among the plethora of characters. It’s rather like Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” multiplied by four. And though it happily avoids the comic shrillness of that lamentable 1995 flop, it instead uses a lot of soapoperatic tropes to extend obvious pleas for understanding, tolerance, diversity, assimilation and respect for tradition, all at once. The four sets of couples have a variety of difficulties to overcome, from philandering to in-law problems to concern about their children. The younger generation, meanwhile, endure stresses of their own–sexual, social and political–which put them at odds not only with their parents but with each other. It’s hardly surprising that the picture ends with a series of escalating climaxes, topped by a twist which enunciates a heavy-handed (and topographically implausible) “let’s all live together in harmony” message.
What saves the film from becoming as irritating as Foster’s is Chadha’s mostly easygoing directorial style, which, at least until the closing reel, avoids melodramatic excess, and a likable, restrained cast. Mercedes Ruehl and Lainie Kazan are nicely restrained as two of the mothers; Joan Chen and Alfre Woodard exhibit a greater tendency to overstatement, but they’re still fine. Maury Chaykin and Dennis Haysbert stand out as two of the dads, but both Francois Chau and Victor Rivers are good as well. Among the children Kyra Sedgwick is strong as a lesbian daughter who brings home her significant other (Julianna Margulies), to the consternation of some relatives, and Will Yun Lee and Douglas Spain are nicely realistic as two of the sons. On the other hand Kristy Wu and Brennan Louie overdo things a bit as siblings with lots of issues between them. Chandha handles most of the large remaining supporting cast well.
One shouldn’t be too hard on “What’s Cooking?” It has some pretty tasty ingredients, especially in the acting and occasionally in the writing as well. As a whole, however, the picture, if not indigestible, proves considerably less than an irresistible feast.