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Today’s Special (Reliance Mediaworks, NR)

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You’ve seen all the elements of this film before, but writer/star Aasif Mandvi (best known as a correspondent on The Daily Show) gives them a fresh spin.

 

 

 

Today’s Special is a sturdy feel-good comedy that demonstrates that it’s still possible to breathe life into the old formulas. You’ve seen all the elements of this film before, but writer/star Aasif Mandvi (best known as a correspondent on The Daily Show) gives them a fresh spin and the result is a pleasant evening’s entertainment. An outstanding cast including several well-known Bollywood actors (Naseeruddin Shah, Haris Patel) is a bonus, as is the location shooting that highlights a neighborhood in New York City not often featured in movies.

Mandvi plays Samir, an ambitious and somewhat full of himself sous chef in a fancy restaurant who is counting on a promotion to full chef. When his boss (Dean Winters) chooses someone else, Samir quits in a huff and announces he is going to Paris to work as a stage (unpaid assistant) to a famous chef. This decision does not go over well with his parents Farrida and Hakim (Madhur Jaffrey and Harish Patel); bad enough that he chose to work in a restaurant instead of pursuing a “real” profession like medicine, but to quit your job and go to work for nothing? Not what these hard-working immigrant parents had in mind for their son, who is all they have since the death of his older brother Ali (who in their minds was, or would have become, everything Samir is not).
 
Then Hakim has a heart attack, and Samir has to take over the family’s greasy spoon restaurant, The Tandoori Palace. There’s just one problem: Samir knows nothing about Indian cooking. In the magical way that such things happen in this type of movie, Samir ends up in a cab driven by Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) who, it turns out, is a genius cook who works entirely by intuition. Do you suppose he can 1) save the restaurant and 2) teach the uptight Samir to appreciate his culinary heritage and also to stop thinking so much and start feeling a little more?
 
Meanwhile, Farrida displays a truly indomitable spirit in her mission to marry Samir to a nice Indian girl. She hasn’t been too successful so far (one wall of their home is papered with the photos of rejected candidates), in part because the upwardly-mobile women she picks out for her son are less than impressed by his line of work (“So you’re a cook?”). And of course he’s too self-absorbed to notice that one of his co-workers, the beautiful Carrie (Jess Weixler), has the hots for him.
 
Today’s Special is loosely adapted from Mandvi’s Obie-winning play Sakina’s Restaurant. The dialogue has the up-to-date feel of a good television script (Jonathan Bines of Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Man Show is credited as co-writer). Samir’s boss has a habit of describing food in sexual terms (“he slices salmon like it’s pornographic,” “I get a boner watching him cook”), which provides the expected laughs. Meanwhile Akbar has a habit of dispensing nuggets of wisdom that manage to be lame and profound at the same time, like: “a man who measures will never know his own measure” and “the masala is the symphony and the oil is the orchestra.”
 
Foodies will also get their fix from Today’s Special. Mandvi and co-star Kevin Corrigan got a crash course in cooking from chef Kevin Patricio, who also made it into the film as a hand double for the more intricate prep scenes, a function he shared with Akhtar Nawab of La Esquina. Food stylist Jamie Kalesis made the food look great (and if you don’t think food styling is an art, check out some of her work here: http://www.janinestyles.com/).
 
Today’s Special was shot in Jackson Heights, Queens, and as a former New Yorker one of the things I like best about this film is that it captures the real feeling of the neighborhood. This is not Woody Allen’s phony all-white New York, but a real multi-ethnic neighborhood where Samir’s family lives in a modest row home, not the improbably sprawling apartments of the Seinfeld cast. | Sarah Boslaugh
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