Dir: Lasse Hallström
This Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg co-production is pleasant enough while it is happening, but like an empty meal that leaves you hungry an hour later, doesn't stand up to much contemplation afterwards. It is so watered-down and so Hollywooded-up as to leave nothing satisifying to chew on. It is a better movie to watch than to think about.
As a story of an Indian family putting down roots in the French countryside, it could have something to say about clash of cultures, but nothing here ventures beyond the facile and obvious; for the most part the family fits seamlessly into French life and are welcomed comfortably by everyone in the little town except for one exceptionally snooty chef and a handful of overtly violent xenophobes. As the story of a young man discovering his culinary passion and talent in the blending of his native Indian cuisine with the structured formality of French cooking, it could have been a richly glorious food movie; but there is surprisingly little in the way of cooking or food presentation or even interesting food talk. Imagine a food movie made by filmmakers who aren't all that interested in or knowledgable about food. In one scene the budding chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) asks his French friend and rival Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) what to do with fresh corn. Grill it over an open flame, Marguerite suggests, and Hassan looks as though the whole brilliant world of sophisticated French technique has opened to him - the filmmakers either don't know, don't care, or assume the audience won't know that fresh corn is grilled over an open flame on every other streetcorner in Hassan's native Mumbai. In the universe of The Hundred-Foot Journey, Hassan learns French cooking from books, not in a kitchen; the many hours of trials and failures that must have accompanied his self-taught mastery of the five basic French sauces (Hollandaise, Béchamel, etc.) are not even hinted at. Instead, we are only shown the revelation of his perfectly-executed samples to a stunned Marguerite. Again and again this film skips the interesting parts of the culinary odyssey and cuts to mastery by fiat, genius because the script says so.
Equally silly is the representative traditionalist's reaction to Hassan's injection of Indian ideas into the established culinary landscape of the French countryside. Consider this exchange between film's haughty representative of La Grande Cuisine, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) and the boy wonder Hassan, as he instructs her to add such exotica to an omelette as chili powder and cilantro. "Why change a recipe that is two hundred years old?" Mallory asks, horrified. Hassan replies, "Maybe two hundred years is long enough." Cue swelling score, remove tray of freshly-baked eyerolls from the oven. The amount of pearl-clutching Mallory does in scenes like this is as bizarre as the notion that a Michelin-starred chef in the 21st century would be gobsmacked by chili powder and cilantro.
On the other hand, it's Helen Mirren, amirite? Nobody goes to a movie like this one for novel or trenchant observations on East and West and whether the twain shall meet. They go to see Helen Mirren and Om Puri (as Hassan's father, Abbas Kadam) chew up the French scenery. And in this respect, The Hundred-Foot Journey absolutely delivers. Om Puri is big and loud, offering his trademark combination of gruffness and charm in a role that hits just about every stereotype there is of the bombastic Indian patriarch and still manages to be sweet and winning and a lot of fun. (Fans of Indian films - that is, nearly all of you reading this - will appreciate a vanishingly brief cameo by Juhi Chawla in the film's opening scenes, as Hassan's mother. Haila!)
And for her part, Helen Mirren's Madame Mallory is by turns pinched and uptight, and utterly exasperated, deflating in that sigh of disgust that is so stereotypically French. And as long as she is villainous, pursing her mouth in that uniquely Gallic sneer of contempt, she is fun, even if she is twirling her proverbial moustaches. In one scene, the mayor warns Mallory that her crusade against the Kadams runs the risk that the townsfolk will perceive her to be in sympathy with the ugly, overtly racist strain of sentiment in the town. "Monsieur Mayor," she returns, with a French accent thick as vichyssoise, "I am rarely perceived to be in sympathy with anyone." It is a decent laugh, and there are many such that season the script.
The amusing villainy can't last, however; one thing that makes this story so very Hollywood is that Madame Mallory is fully redeeemed and then some, eventually so thoroughly defanged and even cuddly that it is almost sweet when a little romance develops between her and Abbas Kadam. This about-face is abrupt and too perfectly complete, obliterating any possible lingering stain on Mallory's character. When the movie shows us some of that nasty xenophobic element to which the mayor referred, both the script and Madame Mallory fall all over themselves to make completely clear that her rageful, irrational hatred of the Kadam family is nothing like their rageful, irrational hatred of them. She may be a hyper-traditionalist, controlling loon, but she's no racist. The result is that another character's bad act turns Madame Mallory from the villain to the prodigal hero's chief supporter, literally overnight. It doesn't make a great deal of narrative sense.
And what of that hero? Hassan's odyssey is nominally the central narrative of the film - the titular hundred-foot journey is his, from the chaotic, curry-infused kitchen of his own restaurant to the precise classical formality of Madame Mallory's restaurant across the road. But this is too much told in shorthand, in a script that seems to place the art of cooking in ingredients rather than technique, and a director who must think that cooking isn't all that interesting to watch. The long and unnecessary epilogue could have been elided to make room for the good stuff that is missing first two-thirds. Still, the end of the film is pleasant, the prodigal son's return, as he realizes that the best ingredients are those that come from home, whether home is Mumbai or a little forest by a little town nestled in a little French valley.