If narrative structure and credibility mattered little when gauging the strength of a feature film, and movies were evaluated solely on the basis of how amiable they were, the slice-of-life comedy Today’s Special would rate as a stunning achievement. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of world we live in; execution does count, and that’s overly apparent in this willfully genial but klutzy debut from director David Kaplan, adapted by scriptwriter-star Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) from his stage play of the same name.
Mandvi plays Samir, a young Indian-American man who works as a sous-chef at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, under the aegis of hotshot manager Steve (Dean Winters of 30 Rock). When Samir gets passed up for a promotion to head chef, he grows so irate that he chucks his position and concocts a story to co-worker Carrie (Jess Weixler of Teeth) about his intention to move to Paris and study with the legends of culinary arts. He soon decides to make good on these plans, but fate has other ideas. When Samir’s restauranteur father, Hakim (Harish Patel), can no longer run the family’s Tandoori Palace restaurant in Queens, Samir (who hates Indian cuisine), ironically ends up running the place. The young man soon decides to pick up the pieces that his dad left behind, and rebuild the restaurant from the ground up.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this piece of whimsicality that several rewrites couldn’t have fixed. It suffers from an Opportunity Knocks fallacy, where the most pronounced issue is an overwhelming reliance on scriptwriter’s convenience and Hollywood contrivance to push its charming narrative developments forward. Would you believe, for example, that Hakim just happens to have a heart attack at the very moment that Samir approaches him and discusses his Parisian plans? Or that, days before taking over the restaurant, Samir lands in a cab driven by Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), the most brilliant Indian chef in the city -- and the fellow who can single-handedly help Samir save Tandoori Palace? Or that, when Akbar finally turns the restaurant over to Samir’s control (advising him to trust his own instincts), Samir manages to lead an amateur staff with no culinary experience (hired on the spot!) into successfully whipping up a gourmet Indian meal that satisfies dozens of customers?
Taken individually, most of these plot developments could theoretically be sustained, but if Mandvi wants to impart them with the necessary plausibility, he needs to work twice as hard to justify their existence within the broader narrative framework -- something he seems unwilling or unable to do. At other times, there are massive plot holes that demand elaboration; the most pronounced is Akbar’s willingness to suddenly quit his cab job, without any further explanation.
The movie, as indicated, is pleasant in spite of its glaring flaws. Mandvi holds his own as the lead, Weixler wins us over as his sexy employee-turned-girlfriend, and veteran Shah does fine work as the chef. There are also unexpected touches of originality scattered throughout, such as a riotous line of vulgar dialogue delivered by Winters about the appeal of a new chef’s cooking (“When he slices salmon, it’s f---ing pornographic…”); a couple of quirky nods to Indian cultural types rarely seen in American movies; and an offbeat, surrealistic use of a child’s doll as a prop in a split-screen montage sequence.
The picture is thin, though -- very thin. We may enjoy ourselves immensely while we’re watching it, but only when we reflect on it in hindsight do we realize what an empty, two-dimensional feel-good construct Kaplan and Mandvi have handed us.
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