Review: David Kaplan’s “Today’s Special”

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.