If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Chocolat and Chef had a ménage à trois and one of them got pregnant, the result would most likely be The Hundred-Foot Journey. Not a perfect offspring, perhaps, a trifle bland, but with enough virtues to make it palatable to audiences who want comfort food, not a challenge, when they go to the movies.
Based on the international bestseller by Richard C. Morais, this sentimental immigrant tale follows an Indian family’s attempts to open a restaurant in a new country after a tragedy in Mumbai. Upon arriving in the Netherlands and then weathering Britain’s gray weather for awhile, they’re stranded by luck in what appears to be the most beautiful place on earth, a small, impossibly gorgeous town in the French countryside. There, Papa (Om Puri) decides, the Kadams will make their stand.
The idea of selling Indian cuisine to the French isn’t necessarily a bad one, but stubborn Papa chooses a rundown property directly across the street from a celebrated French restaurant. Its owner, the fearsome Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, who can be delightfully imperious in French as well as English), zealously guards her Michelin star, wielding it like a weapon at times (heaven help her cooks if they dare to serve limp asparagus). She is not a particular fan of Indian fare (“Curry is curry, is it not?”) and does not much care for the idea of a restaurant that blares loud foreign music directly across the street from her own establishment, which features a genteel soundtrack of murmurs, nods and pouring wine.
As a feud grows between the elders, the next generation views the situation with more open eyes. Handsome Hassan (Manish Dayal), the most talented cook in the Kadam family, and beautiful Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), sous chef for Madame Mallory, fall into a fast friendship that is clearly on its way to becoming something more. But even their budding romance is compromised by their ambition in the kitchen.
A sheen of fairy tale overlays The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is not surprising when you remember it’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who lately has specialized in mawkish fare (he directed adaptations of two Nicholas Sparks novels, Safe Haven and Dear John, as well as the aforementioned Chocolat). The film gives off a warm glow of good intentions from the start, making you feel churlish and cynical for viewing its upbeat take on cultural clashes with skeptical eyes, and its cast is so appealing you simply can’t help but smile at times.
What the film lacks, what would make it last longer in memory, is sensuality. A film that uses food and cooking as a metaphor — in this case for tolerance and respect — ought to have scenes that make your mouth water. But while Hassan’s French-Indian fusion sounds wonderful in theory, it never reaches your salivary glands. By contrast, one shot of Chef’s medianoche could make vegetarians swoon. Perhaps Hallstrom isn’t the foodie that Chef writer/director Jon Favreau is, and that’s why The Hundred-Foot Journey doesn’t really linger on the palate.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manesh Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah.
Director: Lasse Hallstrom.
Screenwriter: Steven Knight. Based on the book by Richard C. Morais.
A Dreamworks release. Running time: 122 minutes. Thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality. Playing at: area theaters.