Warm, stirring occasionally
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 19, 2010
There's nothing terribly special about "Today's Special," a heartwarming if slight foodie comedy set mainly in the kitchen of a struggling Indian restaurant in Queens. As is often the case with films that center on cooking, the on-screen dishes all look good enough to eat. (Check the neighborhood beforehand for the nearest place to get chicken tikka masala. You will leave the theater hungry.)
The film itself, however, is not a richly satisfying meal.
Starring "The Daily Show" correspondent Aasif Mandvi (who wrote the film with Jonathan Bines, inspired by Mandvi's Obie-winning 1998 one-man play, "Sakina's Restaurant"), "Today's Special" tells the story of a young, thoroughly assimilated Indian American named Samir. Over the course of 99 predictable minutes, Samir quits his job as sous chef in a fancy French Manhattan restaurant, takes over the family's dumpy Tandoori Palace on behalf his old-fashioned, ailing father (Harish Patel), and in short order has whipped the place into such great culinary shape that the New York Times picks it as the city's best Indian restaurant.
In the process, the chronically lovelorn Samir not only finds a cute blond American girlfriend (Jess Weixler), but also his inner mojo, reconnecting to his culture thanks to the wise and almost magically gifted chef/cabbie Samir hires to run the Tandoori Palace's kitchen (Bollywood legend Naseeruddin Shah). Shah's Akbar dispenses platitudes and spices with a free hand, but he never uses a recipe. The secret, he tells Samir - before handing over the reins to the sauce pot and his life - is always to improvise.
Ironically, the film could use a little more of that and a little less reliance on formula. It hits all the marks. Slapsticky kitchen mishaps? Check. Subtext about the immigrant experience? Check. Cooking class as life lesson? Check.
Still, Mandvi and his co-stars (who include actress and Indian cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey as Samir's mother) have such a laid-back appeal that they make the overly stale menu of "Today's Special" hard to resist. It's a film where the plating outshines the flavor.
Contains crude language.