The comedy What's Cooking? has the makings of some all-American salad-bowl propaganda piece--a dolls-of-many-nations PSA in which cheery, colorful people celebrate Thanksgiving in quirky ways (e.g., KFC buckets next to sushi and whatnot). In the end, viewers get to feel proud for being part of such a diverse culture, and comforted to know that, underneath our differences, We're all just the same.
Yet somehow, What's Cooking? isn't awful. It's not even bad. In fact, it's very good at being light but smart, which seems a distinctly British talent (co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha is a Brit of Indian descent). It's amazing the sweetness and simplicity you can get away with when your intentions are good.
Chadha, whose last film was a documentary on Asian immigrants in Great Britain, clearly wanted to make a film about America in general, and about L.A.'s stunning diversity in particular. To keep the movie personal, Chadha invents four families to represent L.A.'s (apparently) largest ethnic groups. The Nguyens are Vietnamese immigrants (with Joan Chen as the mom); the Williamses are a well-to-do black family (starring Alfre Woodard); the Seelings are Jews with a lesbian daughter (Kyra Sedgwick, with Julianna Margulies as her lover); and the Avilas are a Latino neo-matriarchy (led by Mercedes Ruehl). As is the fad, these four plots intertwine in surprising and symbolic ways that aren't totally plausible, but which, in the slightly heightened reality of the film, do work.
Plotwise, Chadha is concerned with generation gaps in immigrant families, and the ways in which women fight to keep those families together when the world is going to hell. But what I enjoyed most is how the film shows L.A. as it is: ugly-beautiful, with dingy mini-malls; residential pockets of tidy lawns spread under a white sky; elegant old palm trees leaning south like tired showgirls; and, most of all, dirty city buses packed with people of color and maybe two white guys at most. In sum: the deeper, larger life of the place that has nothing to do with Hollywood and everything to do with the rest of the world.
And so What's Cooking? has a secondary but more interesting life, like L.A. itself. Although the city has long served a mythic role in America as an escape from one's past and one's family, its most important symbolic role these days is as an ethnic testing ground for the country. Like the nation, L.A. has spent most of its life trying to forget history, maintain an artificial distance between its people, and forge a crazy anti-community based on shared differences. That has made it the most unloved, confused, self-abused city around. (What other town would be so ashamed that it would relentlessly create false images of itself?)
What's interesting is that, in the years since the riots, earthquakes, and fires, L.A. has matured remarkably--as Chadha recognizes. And it's not all because of the economy: Much of L.A. is still poor, or dangling on the edge. Rather, it's something to do with people's realization that they're not going anywhere. This is home: Time to meet the neighbors. Is this assimilationist? Yes, but mostly it's a sign of new self-respect. When people "assimilate" the right way, they affect everybody around them. Perhaps the people of Los Angeles are beginning to understand this dynamic. And if Chadha is a romantic (she has said that she loves Capra), well...so what? It's about time someone got romantic about L.A. The real L.A., that is, whose face is only the scarred and lovable face of America.