Aasif Mandvi has followed a colorful path to prominence. Born in India and raised in England, he came to the United States as a teenager and established himself as a dramatic actor on Broadway before finding his more recognizable role as a popular Daily Show correspondent. Yet Mandvi’s comic chops and unique background haven’t kept him from co-writing and starring in an agonizingly mediocre independent comedy-drama. Adapted from Mandvi’s Obie-winning play Sakina’s Restaurant, Today’s Special is so relentlessly generic and familiar, it might as well be called Crowd-Pleasing Ethnic-Food-Based Coming-Of-Age Comedy-Drama.
Mandvi stars as an uptight, type-A, relentlessly driven sous chef on the fast track to becoming an executive chef at a new restaurant his boss (Dean Winters, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Beeper King) is opening. Ah, but life has other plans for him. When his father falls ill, Mandvi takes over the family’s Indian restaurant, in spite of his estrangement from his Indian heritage. Mandvi begins to learn what’s truly important when a mysterious, perhaps magical cabdriver helps him transform a failing business into the hottest Indian restaurant in New York, only to disappear just as mysteriously as he appeared.
A good indication that Today’s Special will be exactly like countless other overly earnest, desperate-to-please, sappy independent films comes when Winters tells his overly ambitious protégé that he’s a cold technician who will never become a true chef until he learns to cook with his heart instead of his head. (Metaphorically, of course.) Mandvi’s script, co-written with Jonathan Bines, then sends the underwritten protagonist on a journey of redemption as he bonds with a pretty fellow chef/arbitrary love interest (Jess Weixler) via a brisk, lazy falling-in-love montage, and learns to embrace the Indian food and culture he was previously eager to leave behind in his mad bid for mainstream success. Today’s Special delivers its populist clichés lukewarm and straight-up when it would be better off subverting or twisting them into funky new forms.