The Hundred-Foot Journey
Exotic foodie romance comes with the Oprah stamp of approval
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Cast: Om Puri, Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal
Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey have combined their emotion-manipulating powers to deliver audiences a serving of cinematic comfort food. The focus of this powerhouse producing team-up is Richard C. Morais’ bestselling food-and-romance novel The Hundred-Foot Journey. The resulting film is the theatrical equivalent of an amuse-bouche—a pleasant, likable, well-crafted pre-appetizer that isn’t hearty enough to fully satisfy, but is certainly enjoyable on its own modest terms.
Swedish director Lasse Hallström is the hired gun here, put in place to bring Morais’ words to life. Having contributed such fare as My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News, Dear John and Safe Haven, Hallström can assemble this sort of twinkle-eyed, easy-to-digest, literature-inspired, comfortably exotic romance in his sleep.
The film starts by introducing us to Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal from “Switched a Birth” and “90210”), an Indian lad with a preternatural love for food. Hassan has been schooled in the culinary arts by his loving mother. Unfortunately she is accidentally killed in a political riot that burns down the family restaurant back in rural Mumbai. Brokenhearted, the family patriarch (legendary Indian actor Om Puri) packs up his family and heads west. Hassan, his brother and sisters find themselves vagabonding around Europe following Papa on a quixotic quest to find a spot with the most “honest” ingredients. Conveniently, the family van breaks down in the impossibly picturesque French town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Deciding—based on the heavenly local tomatoes and some advice from his dead wife—that he’s found the Promised Land, Papa announces that the Kadam clan is finally home.
Papa locates a long-empty restaurant space for rent in town. It seems like the perfect place to open up a family-style Indian restaurant. There are only a couple of catches. One is that people in southern France don’t really know Indian food. Two is that directly across the street is the town’s celebrated, Michelin-starred restaurant. The restaurant’s hard-nosed proprietor, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, doing persnickety Frenchwoman to a T), cooks only the most traditional of French dishes and counts ambassadors and presidents among her clientele. And there you have the setup for a high-tone, food-porn-based clash of cultures.
A lot of the film is taken up with the war between the struggling Kadam family restaurant and Madame Mallory’s hoity toity Le Saule Pleureur. Rigidly old world, Madame Mallory doesn’t cotton to newcomers or new ideas. But thanks to Hassan’s transcendental cooking technique, the upstart Maison Mumbai starts to steal customers from the hidebound Le Saule. Inspired by his new home and its rich history, Hassan begins to blend traditional Indian with modern French. This gives us plenty of loving, lingering looks at luscious curries, truffle sauces and the like. If you’ve seen Eat Drink Man Woman or Like Water for Chocolate or Big Night or Simply Irresistible or Julie & Julia or No Reservations, you know what you’re in for. Plan on eating before or after the film—though not as luxuriously as the characters in the film, sadly.
Rest assured, there is also the film’s romantic undercurrent to take in. Hassan finds himself rightly distracted by Le Saule’s saucy sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, the Gallic version of a young Winona Ryder). Later, as the war between restaurants begins to cool, lonely Papa Kadam starts to feel a certain love-hate bond with the feisty, conveniently widowed Madame Mallory.
The story continues, new ingredients are continually added, and before long, The Hundred-Foot Journey gets a bit overstuffed. By the third act, when Hassan becomes a culinary superstar and wanders off to Paris to seek his fortune, the narrative is noticeably distracted from its original concept. Thankfully everything loops back to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val for the expected, feel-good, taste-good finale.
In the end The Hundred-Foot Journey is comfortingly middlebrow entertainment. It’s an Oprah-approved food/travel/romance piece aimed at the sort of Saveur magazine-reading, senior citizen ticket-buying crowd that made films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel modest indie hits. Food-filled as it is, though, it isn’t a particularly nutritious dish. Enjoyable in the moment, its taste fades shortly after leaving the theater. If you’re in the target demographic, odds are you’ll appreciate the atmosphere and the congenial staff, but you’ll come out hungry for more.
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