Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: David Kaplan's "Today's Special"

Today's Special. 2009. Directed by David Kaplan. Written by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, based on the play "Sakina's Restaurant" by Aasif Mandvi. Produced by Nimitt V. Mankad and Lillian LaSalle. Cinematography by David Tumblety. Edited by Chris Houghton. Production designed by Darcy C. Scanlin. Music by Stephane Wrembel. Songs by Siddharta Khosla. Costumes by Theresa Squire.

Cast: Aasif Mandvi (Samir), Naseeruddin Shah (Akbar), Jess Weixler (Carrie), Madhur Jaffrey (Farrida), Harish Patel (Hakim), Dean Winters (Chef Steve), Kevin Corrigan (Stanton).

What can I say about Today’s Special, opening in theaters today?  Should I start with the good news or the bad news?  I guess I’ll start with the positives.  This film has in its favor a very good cast, starting with its star, Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Mandvi co-wrote the script with Jonathan Bines, based on Mandvi’s off-Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant.  In the film version, he plays Samir, an aspiring French haute cuisine chef who has to take over the family Indian restaurant after his father suffers a near-fatal heart attack.  Mandvi is not exactly a rival to Olivier, but he performs capably alongside the two veteran Indian actors who are his costars: Madhur Jaffrey as his mother; and Naseeruddin Shah as a cab driver/master chef who is best described as the “Masala Whisperer.”  Kevin Corrigan, the stalwart indie film go-to guy, is amusing as usual as Samir’s coworker.  Mandvi is a very funny and brilliant guy on the Daily Show, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how this would translate to film. 

And now, alas, is the part where, as they say in politics, I have to go negative.  In the hands of director David Kaplan, this potentially interesting material is flattened out into the blandest sort of predictability.  I could tell where this was all going to lead from the first frame, and the film does not deviate from this a single iota.  I suspect that this was probably better as a play; the live setting most likely lent some sparks that are utterly missing from the filmed version.  In this context, it is the height of irony that Samir’s main weakness as a cook is that he follows recipes to the letter, rather than allowing his intuitive feel for the ingredients guide how he puts them together.  So much a pity that the film he is in fails to heed this lesson, making it yet another example of a frustratingly underachieving American indie.  It is enough to make one wish that Mandvi had directed the film himself.  Not that this would have necessarily resulted in a significantly better film, but it may have at least have exhibited some sort of a human personality, instead of seeming like a computer program set to “Heart-warming Festival Indie Movie.”  The food looks nice, though; see this film on an empty stomach at your peril. 

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