Needs more spice
Food-centric feel-good flick is pleasant but not very substantial
The cinematic meal served by The Hundred-Foot Journey is tasty but not very filling.
With its multicultural comedy and its culinary romance among restaurateurs and chefs, it taps into the mini-trend that includes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ratatouille, Slumdog Millionaire, etc., as well as such recent foodie niche hits as Chef and The Lunchbox. As such, it seems made-to-order for fans of those other films, even though the on-screen results here live up to those promises in only the most cursory ways.
There is some real appeal, however, in the basic setup here. A refugee family of Indian restaurateurs, the Kadams, moves into a picturesque French village and opens up Maison Mumbai, a grand-looking Indian restaurant, just across the road from a Michelin-rated French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, run by the snooty Mme. Mallory (Helen Mirren). A mildly impassioned rivalry develops between the two establishments, and between the two proprietors, the widowed Papa Kadam (an ebullient Om Puri) and Mme. Mallory, herself a widow.
And there are other complications of note. Hassan (Manish Dayal), the eldest of the Kadam sons and a chef of special gifts, gets involved—romantically, professionally and otherwise—with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a comely sous chef working for Mme. Mallory. The two of them are, at various times, rivals, lovers and benign co-conspirators, and ultimately they are the key figures in bridging the gaps—cultural, national, professional—between the two restaurants and their respective crews.
That relationship is in some ways the flip side of the Mallory/Papa coin, but Hassan in particular looms as the closest the film comes to having a heroic central protagonist. His journey away from and then back into the Mallory/Papa orbit is the final stage of the hit-and-miss process by which the story’s various dramas are resolved within what might be termed the Hassan/Marguerite orbit.
The political violence that the Kadam family fled in Mumbai recurs briefly in France via a neo-fascist firebombing at Maison Mumbai, but the film is not particularly interested in history, politics, or human psychology, for that matter. The two incidents of violence are matters of narrative convenience: the one to get the Kadam family away from India and the other to provoke an easy moral reawakening in Mme. Mallory.
But The Hundred-Foot Journey means above all to offer up a pleasant array of good feelings. It does that often enough that the presold audience for which it was made is not going to worry too much about the childish simplicity of the characterizations or the dull predictability of emotional scenes. Nevertheless, even with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg taking the lead among the film’s producers, this is yet another movie in which the spirit of Disney seems both pervasive and reductive.