The food looks delicious in The Hundred-Foot Journey, but Lasse Hallstrom's movie mostly serves corn. Based on a novel blessed by Oprah Winfrey, this culture-and-cuisine clash is precisely what her endorsement suggests: persistently uplifting and thickly ladled with charm.
This is the sort of project begat by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in the unflattering tradition of Hollywood imitation. Same audience, similar subtexts, including a rich Indian culture, here exported to France. The difference is one British star, Helen Mirren (rather than a handful), yet with such a distracting French accent, she might not count.
Mirren plays haughty, not naughty as we like, as Madame Mallory, owner of Le Saule Pleureur, a classically French dining experience in a quaint village populated by snobs and farmers. Even the farmers get snobby when an Indian family decides to open a restaurant across the street from Madame's Michelin-starred establishment. "Who ahrr zees peepuhl?" Madame asks.
Well, the Kadam clan is led by Papa (Indian cinema icon Om Puri), grieving his wife's death and seeking to showcase the culinary gifts of their son, Hassan (Manish Dayal). Papa and Madame share the usual screwball animosity, made a tad fresher by their ages and accents, but because she's a widow, their future is sealed.
Continuing Hollywood's dalliance with Indian culture, Hallstrom's movie, like Million Dollar Arm earlier this year, finds its best material in family dynamics, a generational gap between tradition and the new. Hassan's story is compelling, a cooking prodigy with a natural palate and Mama's spiritual kitchen skills leading the way. "You cook to make ghosts, spirits that live on," says his mother, and such mystic pride floats this movie.
Dayal makes a solid impression in the role, nicely understated and easy on the eyes. He smoothly handles the abrupt character turns in Steven Knight's adapted screenplay, including an erratic romance with Madame's sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, sort of a Gallic Winona Ryder, the Heathers years). Solid as he is, Hassan's third act, leaving home for Parisian fame, is a drag this foreseeable movie doesn't need.
But that detour makes clear that Hallstrom's movie isn't as much about food as the process of preparing it for consumption. That doesn't excuse the shortage of mouth-watering moments in The Hundred-Foot Journey but explains it. Hassan's Paris restaurant is where cuisine is purely science and diners are lab rats, compared to the sensory pleasures of home cooking. Hallstrom emphasizes the hands kneading dough, whisking eggs and speed-chopping vegetables more than the dishes served.
He gets the recipe right in one scene, when Hassan and Madame share the making of an omelet, a simple dish made extraordinary by context and Mirren's reaction to the moment. The rest is just flipping through a foodie magazine. It's one thing to show great food on screen and quite another to make us figuratively taste it. That's how you reach hearts through stomachs.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.