Four families observe the American tradition of driving each other nuts on Thanksgiving with generous portions of holiday drama on the menu.
In multicultural L.A., different households put their own spin on Turkey Day chaos: An African-American mom (Alfre Woodard) deals with her stubborn husband (Dennis Haysbert), nosy mother-in-law (Ann Weldon) and other irritants. Vietnamese immigrants (Joan Chen, Francois Chau) worry that they've become alienated from their Americanized kids. A Latina matriarch (Mercedes Ruehl) faces the unwelcome return of her prodigal husband (Victor Rivers). Old-fashioned Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan, Maury Chaykin) fret over a visit from their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) and her irreverent lesbian lover (Julianna Margulies).
With substantial parts for more than a dozen actors in its diverse cast, "What's Cooking?" has first-class character players spilling out of the cupboards. Ruehl, criminally underused by Hollywood since her Oscar for 1991's "The Fisher King," is a stand-out delight in the juiciest of the four central mom roles. The Kazan-Chaykin-Sedgwick-Margulies team is particularly on target working the comedy in the Jewish quarter of the story.
Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") pulls off the challenging feat of weaving her mostly unrelated plotlines together without losing narrative tension - a factor that has shot down many a similarly ambitious ensemble drama. At first, the modest family-movie scenarios seem to be heading in a hopelessly feel-good, Hallmark Hall of Fame direction, but the script (by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges) starts to cook with some zinger plot twists in the second act. And the multistory format, so often an arbitrary device in such films, actually serves a thematic purpose in this case - though you'll have to wait for the cleverly set-up ending to find out what it is.
"What's Cooking?" is four satisfying family dramas in one, without a turkey in sight.