The movie What’s Cooking follows multiple different families on their Thanksgiving Break. The movie begins with viewers see a classic Thanksgiving poster on the side of a bus carrying very few passengers resembling a 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. The Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) struggle to accept their daughter's lesbian relationship. The Latino mother (Mercedes Ruehl) 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 (Alfre Woodard) struggles with a demanding mother-in-law and a painful rift between her husband and son.
The movie embodies the similarities and differences between different types of families. It shows how people work with stressful family situations, yet still can come together and enjoy each other’s company. 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. What’s Cooking encompasses American diversity. The stories can get a bit melodramatic, especially a close encounter with a gun near the end of the movie, and the stories veer in different directions at times. Despite this, there is much to enjoy in its situations, characters, and performances (especially by Woodard and Ruehl), and it holds a lot of promise for future projects.
It is arguable to say that there are definitely too many characters in What’s Cooking, which leads to confusion during the first part of the movie. The filmmakers finally manage, however, to take control of their movie, which has many humorous bits. Despite this, What’s Cooking has some moral, redemptive moments which gives a positive twist to the movie’s plot. There is a lot of family controversy in the movie, as it shows how families can fail to communicate with each other.
Overall, the storylines are engaging and skillfully intertwined, and the acting well-done. There are more than a few unnecessary scenes of overwrought drama in the film (particularly within the Vietnamese family's story), but this is balanced out by the many moments of subtlety and humor that add rich texture to the film.
The film succeeds in creating its small-world feel without hitting you over the head with it too often, and unlike many other films about family dysfunction on the holidays, which tend to lean to one extreme or the other, What's Cooking lands somewhere in-between neatly tying up all of the loose ends and leaving them all untied.