My favorite Thanksgiving movie is What’s Cooking?
The Star-Spangled Banner plays over the credits and we see a classic Thanksgiving poster, only to find that it is on the side of a bus that carries very few passengers resembling its smiling Caucasian family. A very diverse group attends a school Thanksgiving pageant and then we follow four of the families, Jewish, Latino, African-American, and Vietnamese, as they celebrate this most American of holidays.
Co-writer and director Gurinder Chadha is an Indian woman raised in England, and she brings a sympathetic outsider’s eye to the stories of the four families, emphasizing their similarities more than their differences. All four of the families love each other, keep secrets from each other, want acceptance from each other. And all of them drive each other crazy, just like everyone else.
They watch football and the Macy’s parade. They cook. They have kitchen triumphs and catastrophes. They say things like, “You’re so thin!” “Give Grandma some sugar!” “I haven’t called because I’ve been swamped with work.” “That’s a very…unusual recipe.” “Dad, you remember that I’m a vegetarian, don’t you?” and “You never listen to me!” They love to see each other but they can’t stop fighting with each other. As one character says, “I guess you can’t call it a family if someone isn’t speaking to someone else.”
The Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) struggle to accept their daughter’s lesbian relationship (with Julianna Margulies of “The Good Wife”). The Latino mother (Mercedes Ruehl in a beautifully warm-hearted performance) wants to introduce her new boyfriend to the family, and her estranged husband has been invited to dinner by their son. The Vietnamese family is coping with a son who has been suspended from school, a daughter who has a condom in her coat pocket, and an older son who is too busy to come home from college. And the African-American mother (the always wonderful-Alfre Woodard) struggles with a demanding mother-in-law and a painful rift between her husband and son.
Chadha handles the multiple story lines and large cast with an expert hand, cutting back and forth to underscore the similarities and the differences. We see potatoes prepared by hand, mixer, spoon, and food processor and the assortment of turkey presentations is one of the movie’s best treats. Chadha has a good feel for American diversity — the video store owned by the Vietnamese family has shelves for videos in Talalog, Farsi, and Korean. We get to see a replica of the the all-white Thanksgiving poster with a Latino family.
The stories can get a bit melodramatic, especially a close encounter with a gun near the end of the movie, and the stories veer from archetype to stereotype at times. But there is much to enjoy in its situations, characters, and performances, especially by Woodard and Ruehl, two of the finest actresses in movies, and it holds a lot of promise for future projects by Chadha.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and sexual references and encounters, including adultery and homosexuality. Characters smoke and drink. A child is in peril, and it gets very tense. The movie also includes family confrontations that may be upsetting to some people.
Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about concerning family communication. They should discuss why so many people felt that they could not tell the truth to their families, and how they would respond to some of the crises faced by the family members in the movie. They may also want to talk about some of their favorite Thanksgiving memories.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “You Can’t Take it With You,” an Oscar-winning comedy about a very eccentric but loving, family.