The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallström, is an interesting and enjoyable summer food film that has a lot going for it, while also not quite hitting the mark. Based on a best-selling novel by Richard C. Morais, the film was produced by Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey and features a generally wonderful ensemble cast, but is also a somewhat confounding experience. Briefly summarized, The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the story of a successful Indian restaurateur and his family of servers and cooks, and their attempt to make a home for themselves in Europe following the burning of their restaurant and death of the family’s chef and mother, referred to only as “Mama” and played by Juhi Chawla. This event, which drives the plot for virtually the entire film, ultimately results in the displaced family, driven by their proud and mourning patriarch “Papa” (Om Puri), settling into an abandoned but conveniently perfect and easily renovate-able space 100 feet across from a snooty, upscale, Michelin-starred French restaurant run by “Madam Mallory” (top-biller Helen Mirren).
From here, the film effectively tells two stories. Story one is that of eldest son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who has inherited what appears to be the gift of a transcendent perfect palate, as demonstrated by the heavy-handed use of close-ups and soft focus designed to convey some level of super-taste when eating a variety of items across the length of the film. Hassan meets Marguerite (the lovely Charlotte Le Bon), a sous chef at the Madam’s restaurant, and a stunningly tame cross-cultural romance ensues (kind of). This romance is disrupted when Hassan eventually proves his worth to the Madam and begins cooking at her restaurant, leading to the obtaining of a second Michelin star, which then results in a strange and unappealing segment in which Hassan moves to Paris, starts slicking back his hair and wearing all black, and becomes a champion of molecular gastronomy. Feeling homesick, he decides to come back to the town he started in and tells the Madam that he will get her a third Michelin star, while also instantaneously resuming his romance with Marguerite, who has apparently put her life on hold while Hassan was off having a Parisian adventure.
In fact, the only conclusion that one can come to is that someone involved in the production of this film–be it the writer, director, producers, or whoever–really, really hates molecular gastronomy and wants you to know that it stinks. For the roughly 20 minutes of film time that Hassan is in Paris, it’s pretty obvious that his food (while popular) is pompous, unnecessarily fancy, and utterly lacking in soul. It’s all so strangely set-apart from the rest of the film that it’s almost Vertigo-like in its presentation, and while Hassan does not ultimately end up dying after falling off the top of a clock tower, if he did you probably wouldn’t feel all that bad about it.
Now, the film’s second story is basically where it’s at. While Hassan and Marguerite’s romance is truly remarkably tame, this only serves to make Papa’s slowly percolating interest in the Madam spicier. This may have something to do with the fact that Om Puri, across the entire film, provides an absolutely in-it-to-win-it performance. Stubborn but funny, his role is certainly the most lively and has the most depth. Papa and the Madam don’t exactly have the world’s most fiery romantic culmination, but it feels a whole lot more genuine than that of the younger cast members.
Let’s not forget about the additional cast members though. Hassan’s younger brother Mansur (played by Amit Shah) is great. Existing in the shadow of his brother, he is realistic, put-upon, and just a little bit bitter, but also an involved family member and a surprisingly strong cast member who should not be forgotten. In fact, the quality of Shah’s performance provides a mirror to that of Clément Sibony, who is utterly forgettable in his role of a racist, nationalistic sous-chef that Madam Mallory dismisses after he and his friends literally set fire to the restaurant and home of Hassan and his family. This is probably one of the most realistic portrayals in the film, as it captures the rampant xenophobia present in a great many parts of Europe, but this entire subplot serves only to help the Madam move further down the road to accepting the strange family across the street.
Despite the strange disconnectedness of parts of the film, and that it relies on tired plot devices in a way that is almost depressing (cross-cultural romance! a displaced family seeking acceptance from people who just can’t help but grow to love them! cooking montages!), it is all pretty nicely delivered. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren deserves an Oscar for some of the shots produced during this film, and while the entire experience might not be perfect, it is nicely paced right up until the bizarre section where Hassan leaves for Paris. If one were going to assign a star rating, it would be a solid 3.5. With some great performances (although Helen Mirren was surprisingly bland across the entirety), beautiful cinematography, and enough comedy to keep things light, it introduces some pretty heavy topics (death and racism) and actually speaks about them in a way that isn’t cavalier. The Hundred-Foot Journey may not be the greatest film about food that was ever made, but it is a nice experience that, like a good meal, satisfies and warms the heart.