Lasse Hallstrom returns to 'Chocolat' territory with this overlong serving of cinematic comfort food.
Beef bourguignon or tandoori goat? Career success or family loyalty? You can actually have it all, according to “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a culture-clash dramedy that presents itself as the most soothing brand of cinematic comfort food. As such, this genteel, overlong adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ 2010 novel about two rival restaurants operating in a sleepy French village is not without its pleasures — a high-energy score by A.R. Rahman, exquisite gastro-porn shot by Linus Sandgren, the winningly barbed chemistry of Helen Mirren and Om Puri — all prepared to exacting middlebrow specifications and ensured to go down as tastily and tastefully as possible. With the formidable backing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey (who produced with Juliet Blake), the DreamWorks concoction should cater to a broad array of arthouse appetites, particularly among those viewers who embraced the similar East-meets-West fusion cuisine of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
If this Old World foodie fairy tale feels like an odd fit for screenwriter Steven Knight — best known for his gritty London underworld thrillers, and coming off an unusually adventurous directing debut with “Locke” — it’s worth recalling that his scripts for the much edgier “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” were directly concerned with the hostilities bred in and around specific immigrant communities. Still, with its cozy, crowd-pleasing temperament, the new film represents all-too-familiar territory for director Lasse Hallstrom, whose superficially similar “Chocolat” offered up a smug little parable about the triumph of sensual indulgence and liberal tolerance over stifling small-town conformity. The culture war examined in “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a bit less one-sided: It contrasts the heat and intensity of Indian cooking with the elegance and refinement of French haute cuisine, then balances the two with a feel-good lesson in ethnic harmony.
Fleeing a tragic uprising in their native Mumbai for a more idyllic life in Europe, the Kadam family, led by their proudly outspoken Papa (Puri), decide to open an Indian restaurant in the South of France. Alas, they soon find that they have merely abandoned one war zone for another, as their scrappy new Maison Mumbai, with its open-air seating and free-wandering chickens, is soon locked in a fierce competition with the classy Michelin-starred establishment located just 100 feet across the road. That restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, is run by the widowed Madame Mallory (Mirren), an unyielding perfectionist and proud defender of Gallic tradition whose first glimpse of her brown-skinned neighbors prompts her to sniff, “Who are zees people?”
Zees people, little does she realize, include one of the most talented young cooks in Europe. That would be our protagonist, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), who soon begins a sly flirtation with Le Saule Pleureur’s beautiful sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon); she in turn introduces him to the venerable tradition of French cooking, which he becomes determined to master. The tension between these two characters, sexual as well as professional, is something the film keeps on a low simmer behind the more fiery confrontations between Papa and Madame Mallory, neither of whom is afraid to resort to all manner of competitive sabotage — whether it means sneakily buying up all the crayfish at the farmers market, or filing complaints with the mayor (Michel Blanc), humorously depicted as something of a gourmand himself.
Amid all this fun but childish oneupsmanship, Knight and Hallstrom gently milk all the expected stereotypes for humor and conflict: The French are snobs with their hoity-toity manners and expensive food, and they’re deeply affronted by the thrifty, tacky Indians with their colorful clothes and loud music. France’s ugly history of racial aggression and unrest, particularly relevant at the present moment, briefly punctures the film’s placid surface when local thugs attack and nearly burn down Maison Mumbai. But rather than lighting a fuse, this trauma is what begins to unite the Kadams and Madame Mallory, who soon realizes that Hassan is not only an exceptional cook, especially when armed with his family’s prized spice box, but possibly the missing ingredient that could earn Le Saule Pleureur its second Michelin star.
And so “The Hundred-Foot Journey” becomes a story in which cultural opposites not only learn to coexist, but are in fact triumphantly and even romantically reconciled. It may be set in France, but really, it could be taking place in any movie-manufactured fantasyland where enemies become the best of friends, and an embittered old shrew turns out to have a heart of gold (and, as Papa appreciatively notes, looks rather fetching beneath the glow of computer-generated Bastille Day fireworks). Morais’ novel was described by the New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan as a hybrid of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Ratatouille,” and Hallstrom seems to have taken that Hollywood formulation to heart: Like “Slumdog,” the film is an underdog story set to the infectious backbeat of Rahman’s music (fun fact: Knight created the original British version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”), and like “Ratatouille,” it brings us into an irresistible world of culinary sophistication and features gorgeous nighttime views of Paris, where Hassan eventually arrives in search of his destiny.
Where the film really overreaches is its attempt to reproduce “Ratatouille’s” glorious Proustian moment, that perfect bite of food that induces a heartbreaking recollection of childhood. This wannabe epiphany arrives deep into a draggy third act, during which the script and the handsome Dayal struggle to give Hassan some semblance of a conflicted inner life, but the character, much like his meteoric rise to the top ranks of international chefdom, remains something of a sketch. It’s the older, top-billed leads who manage the heavy lifting: Though she’s encumbered somewhat by her French accent, Mirren is superb at both projecting an air of hauteur and expressing the vulnerability beneath it, and she brings out a similar mix of pride and feeling in Puri’s Papa, an excellent sparring partner whose stubbornness and drive to succeed never come at the expense of his love for his family.
Shot on 35mm in luminous, sun-dappled tones in the French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val (with some second-unit work in India), and handsomely appointed by production designer David Gropman and costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud, the film is also distinguished by its mouth-watering visual buffet, whether lingering on vats of steaming red curry or a perfectly plated pigeon with truffles. This is, no question, an easy picture to succumb to — perhaps too easy, if its tidy narrative symmetries and its belief in the socially redemptive power of pleasure are any indication. Scrumptious as it all is, it hurts to watch chefs so committed to excellence in a movie so content to settle for attractive mediocrity.