Unhurried and unworried, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” runs with the genial precision of the well-oiled machine. A sweet and unapologetic fairy tale for adults, its story of cuisines and cultures in conflict has been polished to such a high sheen it’s hard to know whether to be impressed or disheartened. Or, more likely, both.
Doing all that polishing is a group of consummate professionals, including such heavyweights as Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as two of the film’s producers. The veteran Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules”) directs, multiple Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman did the soundtrack, and Steven Knight, whose expert scripts include “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Locke,” has adapted Richard C. Morais’ bestselling novel.
And when it comes to acting, canny and accomplished veterans Helen Mirren and Om Puri are well-cast as competing restaurateurs Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam. Their establishments create such mouth-watering dishes, lovingly photographed by Linus Sandgren, seeing this film on an empty stomach is not recommended.
It would be foolish to pretend the result of all these labors is not an effective entertainment, with the unexpected advantage of a plot capable of the occasional surprise. But enjoyable as “Hundred-Foot Journey” can be, it’s still possible to wish that its gloss was not quite so shiny, that the film had more of the messy juices of life to it. Despite its shared interest in love and Indian food, a companion piece to the marvelous “The Lunchbox” this is not.
“Hundred-Foot Journey’s” protagonist is not either of its stars but Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), Papa Kadam’s oldest son. From the moment we meet him as a boy in inevitably colorful Mumbai, we know what it will take the movie two hours to acknowledge: This is an individual with an exceptional culinary gift.
Hassan learns about cooking in the family restaurant, but political unrest in India leads to tragedy. Distraught Papa (the always-effective Puri) moves his five children (including eldest son Hassan) to Europe for a new start, but deciding on a destination is not so easily done.
After rejecting the U.K. because “the vegetables in England have no soul, no life,” the Kadams are tooling down a back road in France when fate, as it often does, takes a hand, not once but several times.
The family’s ancient vehicle breaks down in the picturesque hamlet of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and who should be bicycling past but attractive Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). She treats the family to local produce so tasty that Papa decides on the spot to take over a defunct restaurant, claiming that a spirit message from his late wife insisted “brakes break for a reason”
There is just one problem with Papa’s plan: Saint-Antoine-Noble-Var happens to be Madame Mallory’s town, and she has the chauffeur-driven car to prove it.
Madame Mallory owns Le Saule Pleureur, the town’s celebrated restaurant, worthy of a hard-to-get star in the Michelin guidebook. It’s the best place to eat in a 50-mile radius, and it’s located exactly 100 feet across the road from Maison Mumbai, the Kadams’ new establishment. “The French don’t eat Indian food,” one of his daughters patiently explains to the old man. “They have food of their own.”
Not helping matters is Madame Mallory’s shall we say starchy temperament? Mirren has a lot of fun playing the snooty Madame, prone to saying things like “Who are zese people?” with the proper amount of imperious hauteur. She is not happy about having Maison Mumbai across the road from her, not happy at all.
But if the adults are headed for war, the younger folks have other things on their minds. Young Marguerite just happens to be the sous chef at Le Saule Pleureur, and Hassan develops quite a passion for learning to cook the way the French do it. “To survive here, we have to adapt,” he says, but is his father listening?
The ultimate resolution to all these problems is not difficult to predict, but what do you expect from a movie filled with French folks who speak English 24/7? On the other hand, if there is room for romantic fantasy in your life, this cinematic equivalent of comfort food goes down easy enough, and it’s hard to begrudge it that.
‘The Hundred Foot Journey’
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Playing: In general release.