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Mustafa A. Eck
In LA's Fairfax district, where ethnic groups abound, four households celebrate Thanksgiving amidst family tensions. In the Nguyen family, the children's acculturation and immigrant parents' fears collide. In the Avila family, Isabel's son has invited her estranged husband to their family dinner. Audrey and Ron Williams want to keep their own family's ruptures secret from Ron's visiting mother. In the Seelig household, Herb and Ruth are unwilling to discuss openly their grown daughter's living with her lover, Carla. Around each table, things come to a head. A gun, an affair, a boyfriend, and a pregnancy precipitate crises forcing each family to find its center. Written by
With Girlfight, this tops my best of 2000 list. Not that I have seen them all, and not that there's much competition. This was such a dreadful year in Hollywood I'm swearing off Oscar day. But this IS an amazing film (as is Girlfight). Let women direct more, I say, and let budgets be slashed in subatomic particles. Most importantly, let people who have stuff to say, say it. All the other ones should wait for inspiration.
One of the amazing things about this film is its pace. It is breathless, and you never quite stop laughing or gasping or having some variety of intense edge-of-your-seat emotional reaction. Which is amazing, because the plot is so complex, it could easily have gotten lost in chaos. Even as you laugh, the tension doesn't let up. The stories unfold rapidly and dramatically and with full comic timing, and you never quite stop marveling. We are not treated very often to this kind of inventive filmmaking.
If you've lived in LA for any significant length of time, you'll realize from the start that this film is not meant to be realistic. The MTA scenes at the beginning are so un-LA, so colorful and happy, you know this is going to be a grand fest of the imagination and the heart, not a tale of urban life. (For one, people on MTA buses tend to sit dejectedly, not to have a collective laugh&lovefest). Similarly, the ethnic angle is more life-as-we-would-like-it-to-be than life-as-is. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's so refreshing to see race on film without having to trudge through misery, pain, and blood, you want to weep with gratitude. What's Cooking? is full of big themes treated with similar lightness: broken families, same-sex relationships, tradition vs. progress, parenthood, urban violence, gender roles, politics... Even as it packs it all in, the film does it all seamlessly, treating it as the stuff of everyday's life it in fact is (funny how movies tend to deal with one issue at the time, and how we've grown to consider that a good thing).
But lightness is not glibness or superficiality. There's a big heart and a big sharp mind at the center of What's Cooking? and problems get taken seriously. Clearly, since this is the world as we'd like it to be, most things find some sort of satisfactory conclusion by the end. And that is more than all right, because we're tired to see gays and people of color go down, families drown in waters to thick to negotiate, and all the vast repertoire of disasters that make critics think a film "got it right." Nope. Not here. But the world as we'd like it to be can still be a POSSIBLE world, and this is ultimately the exhilarating nutshell of What's Cooking?: that joy is not beyond our reach, the pain can give way to healing, and that, hell, we can, maybe not perfectly but nonetheless, all get along.
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