With Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Michel Blanc. Written by Steven Knight. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality. 118 minutes.
In the 1980s, Swedish director Lasse Hallström, previously known for doing a documentary about ABBA, gained fame with American arthouse viewers with a lovely film called “My Life As A Dog.” He arrived in Hollywood in the 1990s, and since then has become the go-to director for what might be called the “well-made film.” For every “The Cider House Rules” or “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” there’s been a lot of commercial pap. Some, like “Chocolat,” were box office hits, but most were more like “Dear John,” “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen,” and “Safe Haven.” These are safe movies that are slickly made and intended to give viewers the effect of a warm bath: comfortable for a bit and then something you never think about again.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is likely to fall into the same category as “Chocolat,” and not simply because it’s a French-based story involving romance and food. It’s pleasant, it’s professionally produced, and leaves you with that warm bath feeling. It’s not a great film but it is one that will please many.
Based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, the story has the substance of a fairy tale. The Kadam family, having fled violence in their native India, seek a place to live somewhere in Europe. Their car breaks down outside a village in France and the family patriarch (Om Puri) decided that this is where they should open up a new restaurant, featuring an Indian menu. Across the street–one hundred feet away–is a restaurant spotlighting classical French cuisine run by Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren). She is not happy about the competition.
Some tit-for-tat fighting occurs, leaving the poor mayor (Michel Blanc) in the middle when he’d rather be enjoying the food. Without giving away too much more of the plot, two things signal where things are headed. First, Hassan (Manish Dayal) is a gifted cook who is eager to learn French cuisine and experiment with combining French and Indian flavors. Second, Madame Mallory’s sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), is the one who first encounters and rescues the stranded Kadams. Oh where could this story possibly be going?
Hallström makes everything so comfortable and charming that you tend to go with the flow. If Mirren is prickly and brittle at the start, we know she will soften as the story goes on. Dayal and LeBon provide the romance with just a touch of tension: are they destined to be rivals or partners? No fair guessing. Puri provides much of the fun, although his cantankerous Papa is also a character we’ve seen many times before, shifting from comical optimism to grim determination without breaking into a sweat.
If there’s any irony here it is that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is ultimately a celebration of daring and originality. Both Papa and Hassan take the view that if what they’re preparing is good the public will come to them, a view that Madam Mallory eventually comes to share as well. However the people who have made the film apparently believe just the opposite: if you give the public the cinematic equivalent of comfort food they will wolf it down and be grateful. They may well be right here, and viewers who demand nothing more from their movies need not feel guilty. However, this is the movie version of a tuna fish sandwich, not haute cuisine.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.