Thursday, August 7, 2014

Movie review: The Hundred-Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren, sets a familiar table

The director of Chocolat creates another feast for the senses.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 2:14 PM

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Movies where the preparation and enjoyment of food plays a central role make themselves easy targets for gastronomic-related metaphors. The Hundred-Foot Journey unabashedly wears a bullseye for all manner of reference to spice, souffle, frothiness, and the like. Perhaps it's most apropos to describe it as cinematic comfort food for those whose tastes run to movies set in quaint villages that seem destined for feature articles in the glossy pages of travel magazines.

All the expected ingredients are here: light comedy and conflict, a dash of romance, and a quasi-religious reverence for food. Characters wax and emote about the "ghost" that lives in the ingredients being prepared, and the way flavors can bring back potent memories. This is the sort of movie where someone tastes a culinary creation, closes both eyes, and then slowly removes the utensil to reveal a facial expression that conveys bliss, awe and near-sexual delight. It's a feel-good tale about the power of great-tasting food to bridge prejudices and bring East and West together.

Nothing in Hundred-Foot Journey is unexpected — the film charts a predictable course of gently humorous culture clashes, romantic seduction through the taste buds, and foodie indulgence, all played within a light-comedy framework with professional aplomb. Helen Mirren is the big Western star here and gets first billing, but her haughty French restaurant owner Madame Mallory, though prominent throughout, is not the story's main focus. That distinction belongs to the handsome young Indian actor Manish Dayal, who plays Hassan Kadam, a talented would-be chef. Hassan and his family, led by his father, fled India when their restaurant was destroyed during a riot. When the Kadams' van breaks down in the countryside of southern France, the elder Papa Kadam (Om Puri) decides fate has brought them there to start anew. So they open up the Maison Mumbai just a hundred feet opposite Mallory's Michelin-starred restaurant. The dismissive Mallory sees the Indian family as more nuisance than threat, what with their loud music and gaudy decorations.

Mallory and the widower Papa bring out a "this means war" attitude in one another. Their rivalry and the way they get on each other's nerves through sabotage and formal complaints while defending their turf provides consistent if vanilla chuckles. Another kind of rivalry — less fiery and mostly one-sided — develops between Hassan and Mallory's sous chef, Marguerite (the lovely Charlotte Le Bon). You can guess how that relationship between these two attractive characters plays out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey invites comparisons to two other films released this year: Million-Dollar Arm and Chef. Journey does a much better job than Million-Dollar Arm at focusing on its transplanted Indian protagonists, but it's not quite in the same league as Chef, which ingratiated itself with a lot of sweat equity — culling offbeat humor out of a culinary artist rediscovering his passion during a cross-country road trip in a food truck.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) doesn't miss the opportunity to find visual humor in the ethnic fare: contrasting the brightly colored seasonings and generous portions of Indian dishes with the expertly presented and dainty plates of French cuisine. The food — from the basic French sauces to the vivid Indian spices to the completed artistic dishes — is exquisitely filmed for maximum mouth-watering effect. So too is the village of Saint-Antonin-Nobel-Val, presented as an idyll of rolling green slopes, outdoor cafes and markets, lush paths and lazy boats on the river. It's not overstating the case to say that many viewers will pine for the chance to stay at the charming, impossibly cozy apartment Marguerite calls home.

Journey prominently bears the endorsement of producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. In a filmed segment before the screening I attended, Winfrey gushed about the film, while a reserved Spielberg praised director Hallstrom for his work as a kind of cinematic chef. Within the art-house-lite ambition of the movie, Spielberg is right — Hallstrom swirls together the power of shared pleasure, romance, and cross-cultural harmony to produce tasty morsels, much like the petit fours Mallory offers during an evening celebration under starlit skies. His deft touch helps mitigate an ill-advised third act that finds the film losing its way. That error notwithstanding, those with agreeable palates should find much here to savor.

3 out of 5 stars
Rated PG. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon. Opens Fri., Aug. 8.

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