I’m probably biased in favor of films that take place in my own Queens, New York neighborhood, but Today’s Special is an appealing enough proposition to stand on its own merits. While Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man is likely to remain the definitive Jackson Heights film, David Kaplan’s food-themed comedy captures the flavor of the nabe in a way that Hitch’s classic, in its concern with taut narrative dynamics, doesn’t quite have the leisure to indulge. For one thing, the community has changed in the 50-plus years since the Master of Suspense descended on Roosevelt Avenue, camera in tow, and Kaplan’s film, which focuses on the Indian-American community, takes in such local sights (subcontinental or otherwise) as groups of old men sipping tea at empty restaurants, neighborhood celebs (the popular street vendor known as the Arepa Lady), and, above all, the central role played by food to the neighborhood’s diverse populace.
That centrality is emphasized by casting the lead character in the role of a chef: Passed over for promotion at a trendy Manhattan eatery because his cooking is too “by-the-numbers,” Indian-American thirtysomething Samir (The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi) quits his job, then temporarily tends to his father’s failing restaurant after the older man suffers a non-fatal heart attack. Uncertain how to cook masala (he’s deliberately turned his back on his native culture), Samir tries to keep things afloat as he wards off the accusations of career failure aimed at him by his father and pressures to find an Indian wife, the relentless priority of his mother. While readjusting to Queens living, Samir enlists the help of an effervescent cabbie who, before moving stateside, was a top chef in Mumbai. As Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) teaches his charge how to cook tandoori, emphasizing intuition over recipe following, he brings a spirit of lusty optimism that proves infectious to those around him and provides the film with an irrepressible vitality.
Today’s Special too often gets bogged down in its intergenerational culture clash (a narrative line that Kaplan plays for either broad comedy or rote sentimentality), but when we’re inside the 37th Avenue kitchen, the ragas are playing and the eye-filling spices are being mixed, all is (mostly) forgiven, at least for this curry-loving Jackson Heights resident.