"...and then you let it cook until it smells right."
That was the baffling final step of a recipe that I tried learning from my mom before I headed off to college as a young lad. She could tell I was confused out of my mind and I could tell she was uncomfortable verbalizing what had long been instinctual to her. There I was asking for precise measurements when all she could offer were "a handful of that" and "a couple of these". It wasn't her fault. A recipe can only ensure that your food will be edible. To make it lip-smackingly delicious, you need well-honed instincts.
Unfortunately you either have the right instincts or you don't. They can't be taught and assuming you cultivate them over time, have fun trying to communicate them to someone else. That was the true lesson my mother taught me back then and it is just one of many things the protagonist of Today's Special learns during his unexpected journey of personal growth. This would be characterized as a coming of age story if it weren't for the teensy weensy detail that our lead has already come of age. Perhaps it would be more fitting to call it a story of rebirth, one in which old ways must be burned to the ground before a new outlook can take root.
Samir (Aasif Mandvi) is an incredibly hard working sous chef in a busy restaurant in New York. He plans schedules, manages inventory and leads the kitchen staff while the head chef (Dean Winters) makes an occasional appearance and claims the accolades. Samir doesn't mind since he is slated to take over the kitchen of a new restaurant that his head chef is opening up. After all, he has the chops and a killer work ethic...how could he be denied? Well, apparently his food doesn't give the head chef a 'boner'. At least that's what the head chef claims before giving the coveted position to some young hotshot.
One hasty resignation later, Samir finds himself back home telling his parents (Madhur Jaffrey and Harish Patel) that he'd like to take an (unpaid) apprenticeship with an esteemed chef in Paris. As if to physically encapsulate the depth of his disappointment, Samir's father has a heart attack. While he recovers in the hospital, Samir is forced to take over management of his family's hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant. A surly kitchen staff, an oblivious waiter, flagrant health code violations, old cronies that just sort of hang around...you name it, the Tandoori Palace has got it. What it doesn't have is a ton of paying customers. After his cook walks out on him, Samir is forced to improvise. He doesn't have any experience cooking Indian food but he did just meet a taxi driver (Naseeruddin Shah) who claims to have cooked for kings and queens in India. Perhaps he could help?
I won't tell you anymore about this film's plot because you already know how it ends. Heck, you knew that as soon as I said that a disgruntled chef had a disapproving father whose ailing restaurant needed a shot in the arm. The broad strokes have been seen plenty of times before but to focus on them is to miss the tiny details that make this a genuinely heartwarming experience. Although the film tackles plenty of weighty subjects, it uses them judiciously to round out what is a sweet-natured tale about finding a way to be comfortable in one's own skin. When Samir's mother and father recount the hardships they experienced as immigrants, it is meant to remind him of the love that motivated them in the first place. When his father makes barbed comments about Samir's dead brother, he reveals his own failings as a father...ones he would undo if he thought it made a difference.
Like I said, heavy stuff. And yet, for much of the film I wore a big fat smile on my face. This is thanks to a gentle sense of humor that ebbs and flows but always maintains a steady presence in the background. The screenplay by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines (based on a play by Mandvi) has an acute sense of authenticity about it. They don't dig deep for laughs since they trust the audience will find the humor for themselves as events unfold. What's amazing is that they hit the nail on the head every single time. Helping their cause is director David Kaplan who maintains a firm grasp on the film's slippery tone. He'll give us a scene that goes from comedic to deathly serious and then back to comedic without giving us whiplash in the process. And then, he does it all over again.
I've already mentioned Mandvi's skill as a writer but that shouldn't overshadow his onscreen talent. For a guy who is routinely funny as one of the Daily Show correspondents, he brings his dramatic chops to the table this time and doesn't disappoint. This isn't a showy performance but it is a deeply sympathetic one. It helps that he is surrounded by an immensely talented (and funny) cast of performers. Harish Patel and Madhur Jaffrey (herself a giant in the world of Indian cooking) are never less than believable. Jess Weixler pops in as Samir's love interest and proves to be just the stabilizing force he needs. Kevin Corrigan and Dean Winters also entertain in their few scenes. That brings me to the ace up this film's sleeve: Naseruddin Shah. An undeniable legend of Hindi cinema, he takes a character that could have been a strange Indian Forrest Gump clone and imbues him with such sly intelligence that he feels all too real.
I have to admit that I found it a little strange that a talented chef would have so much difficulty in trying to cook the sort of food that he must have grown up with. However, that is a minor complaint and one that I will gladly ignore since it allowed me to spend roughly an hour and a half with such richly drawn characters.
The widescreen image provided ample support for the film's naturalistic look. Fine detail looked good in most scenes. A few shots were a bit soft but the effect seemed intentional. The vivid color palette with rich blues, greens and reds was accurately represented with plenty of pop and clarity.
The audio was presented in Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1 Surround mixes. I chose to view the film with the surround sound mix and went in not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised since the film's soundtrack featured a ton of older Hindi songs which came through with a great deal of oomph. Most of the dialogue driven scenes were perfectly clear but a few seemed unnaturally hushed. This didn't impact my viewing experience too much.
We start things off with a trio of Deleted Scenes. The first two don't add much to the film other than a bit more of screen time for Kevin Corrigan. The third one seems awfully out of character for Samir and I'm glad it was cut out. Next, we get a short Interview with the Co-Writers (3:52). Mandvi and Bines spend half the time joking around about early drafts of the screenplay that featured killer sharks and Russian submarines. The other half is spent touching on similarities between cultures and how that allows this Indian tale to take on a more universal feel.
A Cooking Sketch (3:41) allows Mandvi to engage in some buffoonery while Jaffrey walks us through an honest to goodness recipe (Okra!). We close things out with the "Ina Mina Dika" Video by Goldspot (3:24). This cover of an older Indian song has the singer performing in a variety of strange locations ranging from grocery store aisles to gym locker rooms. It's fun but forgettable.
Many dishes use the same ingredients. What separates the 'good' from the 'bad' is the amount of care that went into assembling them. This is also true of Today's Special. Aasif Mandvi pulls double duty by starring in a screenplay that he co-wrote and emerges quite successful. Director David Kaplan keeps the tricky tone in check by surrounding Mandvi with capable comic performers who can change gears in the blink of an eye. This is a small sweet-natured film that deserves to be viewed and appreciated. Highly Recommended.