You'll never get into a heated debate over the best Thanksgiving movie — there just aren't many memorable ones to choose from, much less to feel passionate about. Crowded traveling, scarfing turkey, and getting in boozy fights over politics with your uncle may all be part of the American experience, but that's apparently not enough to move someone to create a film. Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday season, but when it comes to inspiring movies, it's got nothing on Christmas.
Yes, there is the agreed-upon classic, the Steve Martin-John Candy comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but the drop-off after that is steep. There are a few scrappier would-be standards that never quite made it, like Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays and the Katie Holmes indie Pieces of April. Then there are the movies that use Thanksgiving gatherings as just another backdrop for ongoing drama, like The Ice Storm, Hannah and Her Sisters, The House of Yes, and The Myth of Fingerprints — which is fair enough, but not really about the holiday at all. Thanksgiving movies tend to conjure up images of chilly weather, repressed emotion, and, frequently, whiteness.
But as the child of immigrant parents growing up in California, my Thanksgivings were not filled with the stressful trekking and alcohol-induced political feuds — and Thanksgiving, in particular, shouldn't be presented as monolithic. As a secular, national tradition, it includes in its expansive embrace Americans of all kinds who are temporarily unified in their attempts to properly roast and devour a giant piece of poultry. Dubious origin story aside, there's a good case for Thanksgiving being the best holiday of the year, concerned only with the straightforward pleasures of getting together with people you like or love (or are obligated to spend time with anyway due to familial ties) and eating mountains of starchy food. It's deserving of a movie that celebrates its basic inclusiveness and gluttony, and so I submit for your Thanksgiving classic consideration the 2000 film What's Cooking?, directed by Gurinder Chadha.
Chadha's a Kenya-born British Indian filmmaker whose work (which includes Bend It Like Beckham) often focuses on the experiences of South Asians living in the U.K. But What's Cooking? (yes, the title is terrible), which she co-wrote with her half-Japanese, Californian husband Paul Mayeda Berges, is set in a vibrant, sunny, multicultural Los Angeles, where four families of different backgrounds prepare for dinner and confrontation. Each is headed up by a matriarch played by a formidable actress, though each family sprawls, its concerns overlapping and sometimes intersecting on Thanksgiving eve and the big day.
The Avila family is headed up by the warm, rueful Lizzy (Mercedes Ruehl), who's finally getting over her husband leaving her for another woman (for added sting, her own cousin). The tense Audrey Williams (Alfre Woodard) oversees the upscale household she shares with her husband Ronald (Dennis Haysbert), who works for the Republican governor, and whose schedule means she has to spend a lot of quality time with his visiting, critical mother. Trinh Nguyen (Joan Chen) frets about her teenage daughter's behavior, but her sons have bigger secrets to hide. And Ruthie (Lainie Kazan) and Herbie Seelig (Maury Chaykin) continue to pretend their daughter Rachel's (Kyra Sedgwick) girlfriend Carla (Julianna Margulies) is actually just her roommate.
It's schematic, certainly: Each family — Latino, black, Vietnamese, Jewish — dealing with its own sometimes overheated story involving secret boyfriends, infidelities, schisms, and a gun. But as the film jumps from home to home, there's a comfort to the way each family's differences give way to two essential similarities: Everyone feasts and everyone fights. And anyway, the blowups are inevitably the least interesting part of each household's thread, more a means to a climactic ending. What's Cooking? happily revels in the chaos of having a packed home during the holidays, of the tensions and tender moments and the ways they come out. Its best observed moments are delicate ones, in the class self-consciousness at the source of Audrey's passive-aggressive battles with her mother-in-law, or in the way that Trinh and her mother cook Vietnamese food and, with less adeptness, a separate and more traditional Thanksgiving meal to please the Americanized children. "Why do you want the turkey to taste like everything else we eat?" teenage Jenny (Kristy Wu) asks when she sees the two have covered the turkey in chili sauce.
There's the eloquence in how the women in the Avila family are shown gathering and gossiping in the kitchen while the men hunker down in front of the television and holler out not always answered requests for beer — a gender divide that will later be reflected in a showdown over the dinner table. And then there's the scene in which Ruthie brings Rachel and Carla coffee in the morning and the couple have a whispered discussion of whether or not to let her see them in bed together. What's Cooking? starts with types, perhaps, in its big ensembles, but these nicely nuanced scenes fill them out into whole, flawed people with ease, hitting on the many things we leave unsaid in order to keep the peace.
And then there's the food, lavish, homey, sometimes artfully prepared and sometimes dumped out of a can with a shrug. Its preparation and consumption is the heart of What's Cooking?, as it's assembled in loving montages of roasts in ovens, sure, but also tamales being prepared, rice noodles being rinsed, mac and cheese carefully mixed. These families don't necessarily come from a tradition of turkey, stuffing, yams, and green bean casserole, but that doesn't mean they aren't going to try and to put their own mark on the meal with their own twists and additions. Audrey, for instance, is a foodie, prepping oyster dressing and Moroccan fruit compote, while Trinh's mother bemusedly examines a quivering cylinder of cranberry sauce. Lizzy explains to her daughters how to stuff a turkey, while Rachel's Aunt Bea (Estelle Harris) mistakes polenta for Jell-O.
Though What's Cooking? doesn't shortchange its male characters — there are lovely sequences involving Trinh's son Jimmy (Will Yun Lee), who's actually with his new college girlfriend at the Avilas' house, as well as Herbie, who drones on about his jacuzzis in order to mask his discomfort with Carla — the movie gives center stage to its women, and to the work that goes into preparing the meal and into holding a family together, even at the cost of some personal sacrifices. Its vision of multicultural America is fond but not artificially cheery, which is how it should be — What's Cooking? isn't a melting pot movie in which everyone melds into one American whole. It's one about how cultures change, adapt, and brush up against others, all in a single town (and the reveal about where each family lives is a quietly rewarding sequence). Like its characters, What's Cooking?'s imperfections are part of its charms, as it shows Thanksgiving as a living tradition that everyone touches and shapes as they partake in it.