No surprises, but lots to savor in foodie film ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’
If you’ve seen the preview trailer for The Hundred-Foot Journey, you’ve seen the movie. If you’ve seen any foodie film in recent history in which cross-cultural food becomes a metaphor for spicing up life and/or romance—Chef, Chocolat, Babette’s Feast, Like Water For Chocolate—you’ve seen this movie. Basically, nothing happens here that’s not telegraphed in the first 15 minutes or so, besides which every major plot twist and punchline has already been revealed in that trailer.
And yet, having said all that, The Hundred-Foot Journey has its easygoing charms. Thoroughly engaging performances are provided by a mixed cast of veterans and newcomers, led by the redoubtable Helen Mirren and Indian national treasure Om Puri. The location is irresistible, a sun-drenched corner of the south of France where an upstart family-run Indian eatery sets up shop across the street from a venerable French restaurant. And there’s plenty of good-looking food (of course), from haute cuisine to vivid masala-spiced Indian dishes to simple French country cooking, presented with enough relish to make it all go down smoothly.
Scripted by Steven Knight from the novel by Richard C. Morais, the film is directed by Lasse Hallstrom (who, by the way, also directed Chocolat, along with a slew of other novel adaptations). The story begins in flashbacks to India, where the large and boisterous Kadam family operated a popular restaurant, and where eldest son, Hassan, grew up cooking at his mother’s side. But a political uprising led to tragedy, and the family is forced to flee to the west, under the leadership of crusty, proud widower, Papa (Puri).
After an unhappy stay in rainy England, the Kadams are driving aimlessly through Europe, looking for a place to put down roots, when their decrepit vehicle breaks down in a charming French village. Its claim to fame is an elegant one-star Michelin restaurant on the main road, presided over by haughty widow, Madame Mallory (Mirren). When Papa discovers a large stone farmhouse for sale, complete with kitchen and dining area, he’s sure he’s found the site for the next Kadam family enterprise, with himself greeting guests, the now-grown Hassan (Manish Dayal) in the kitchen, and the older siblings waiting tables.
The only catch? It’s right across the road from Madame Mallory’s place. Papa insists the town is big enough for both classical French and traditional Indian food, but a cold war quickly escalates between the two establishments. Mme. Mallory complains to the mayor that the music is too loud at the new Maison Mumbai, and the temple facade that the Kadams erect in their courtyard is too gaudy. Both proprietors try to sabotage the other by buying up all the best ingredients at the village market.
Meanwhile, Hassan sparks with Mme. Mallory’s young sous chef, Marguerite (the lovely and spirited Charlotte Le Bon), who recognizes in him the soul of a fellow food artist. She teaches him the five basic sauces of French cuisine and gives him a pile of cookbooks to study. Once Maison Mumbai establishes itself, both restaurants are attracting customers, and even Mme. Mallory and Papa are grudgingly beginning to warm up to each other (naturellement!), the time is ripe for Hassan to make a move for his own future and offer himself as apprentice to Mme. Mallory.
There seems to be a lot more potential drama in this story than ever actually occurs on screen. There’s no particular rift with Papa when Hassan goes over to the “enemy.” A poisonous mushroom is discovered in one kitchen, but it never figures into the plot. And while dreamy-eyed Dayan and frisky Le Bon are quite charming in their romantic scenes together, it’s a bit troubling that her dreams of becoming a chef de cuisine in her own right appear to get short shrift in the feel-good finale.
Still, the film is inarguably enjoyable. Poetic references abound on the Romance of Food. (“Food is memory,” is Hassan’s motto. “Life has its own flavor,” his mother tells him.) The food is always tantalizing, and Mirren delivers another indelible performance of steely reserve tempered with wry, self-aware humor. It’s not too filling, so you can eat it up without guilt.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY *** (out of four) With Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, and Charlotte Le Bon. Written by Steven Knight. From the novel by Richard C. Morais. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. A Touchstone release. Rated PG. 122 minutes.