Lasse Hallstöm is a director who appears to like sedate and charming movies. Movies that make you feel like something profound has been revealed without ever actually challening you as a watcher. I'm not immune to this charm but with many of his previous movies—such as The Shipping News, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat—eventually, I feel like I've come out of a hypnotic state and can't really explain or rediscover why I so enjoyed it the first time around.
That sense returns with The Hundred-Foot Journey. In it, the Kadam family leaves Mumbai, India and their restaurant business there to start over in Europe after a tragedy befalls the family. They end up in a quaint French village and open a new restaurant across the street from a one Michelin-starred classic French establishment run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). A culture clash ensues between her uptight airs and the Kadams' more free-wheeling style.
A three-year arc in that clash and resolution is presented, and it is relentlessly glossy. If you mailed away to a travel agency for brochures on tours around the French countryside, many of the stock images could be pulled straight from this movie. The village is quaint, a house in disrepair just needs a little polish to be beautiful again. There's a picturesque bike path along a babbling brook from which you can discover and eat mushrooms or catch a fish for that night's dinner service. In town, the villagers apparently do nothing but sip coffee at cafes or browse the beautiful produce at the outdoor market. Carrefour and Burger King do not exist in this vision of France.
The characters are equally glossy. On the traditional French side is Mirren's Mallory. Her restaurant has been awarded one Michelin star, and she will do almost anything to get a second. She may protect her business from her new neighbors but ultimately she just loves the food. In her kitchen is the perky Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a sous chef working her way up the ladder, and the Juliet of this tale. Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony) is head chef and full on snob, decrying the sudden pervasive smell of curry from across the street and willing to be the heavy for narrative purposes.
On the upstart side, we have the Kadam clan. Papa (Om Puri) is the obstinate but loving patriarch of the clan. After tragedy struck the family in India, he moved his children to Europe to restart their restaurant business. Four of his children are background scenery popping up here and there to move things along or to provide a comedic aside. The star of the family is Hassan (Manish Dayal), who loves food and cooking as an art and learned this from his mother. He's a natural in the kitchen, the Romeo of the story—and his professional advancement is the focus of the three-year arc of the clash between the two sides.
Despite a deep blandness (see what I did there) throughout the movie, I found I enjoyed myself throughout as well. On the surface, it looks like an ode to excellent food (but then you realize you don't actually see much food in the movie), the brilliance of talent and hard work together (but then you realize you never actually see anybody putting in any effort), and passion over mechanical execution (but then it seems success came from the latter).
There are two acts of horrific violence in the movie, and it is a major misstep that neither seems to have major impact on anybody beyond moving the plot to the next phase. The first shatters a family—but for the movie, it serves only get the Kadams from Mumbai to France. The second exposes a seedy xenophobia in French culture and puts lives in real peril, but is used as nothing more than the first step in ending the squabble between neighbors and is never mentioned again.
The result is a movie that feels like it wants to be something a bit more than a postcard but can't quite put itself on that path.
The result is, to use a metaphor forced on reviewers by the movie, more a great dinner—that is great because of the company and not the food—than a sublime foodie experience.
- The Hundred-Foot Journey is a DreamWorks release.
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, August 11
- Directed by Lasse Hallstöm
- Written by Steven Knight
- Starring Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon
- Running time: 122 minutes
- Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality
- Alex's rating: 7 out of 10