“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a feel-good movie so intent on making its audience feel good that it ladles its more sentimental aspects when only a pinch would have done.
Thus concludes my food-analogies-as-film-criticism approach, which is fun but fromage-y. And Om Puri is too good for that.
The Indian actor with a regal yet wry manner, W.C. Fields nose and long résumé in Indian and British film ( “My Son the Fanatic”) excels here as Papa, patriarch of an Indian family who open a restaurant in the south of France. Puri lends Papa good-humored conviction and plays beautifully off Helen Mirren as the snooty proprietor of a Michelin-starred haute cuisine establishment across the road.
Having been literally burned out of his restaurant in India during a politically motivated attack in which his wife was killed, Papa is not intimidated by Mirren’s character, Madame Mallory, making supposedly cutting remarks about the sameness of curry dishes.
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Puri tinges his deep, growly voice with amusement in scenes with Mirren. Papa does not like Madame Mallory’s snobbery, but he recognizes the ways in which she is like him. Both exude authority but care foremost about culinary artistry.
Madame Mallory tries to sabotage Papa by buying up all the seafood at the local market after viewing the Indian restaurant’s opening-night menu. When he eventually counter-punches, it is with a clear appreciation of facing a spirited opponent.
These two doing battle is something to behold, especially against an idyllic French backdrop of green fields and an endlessly big sky at turns pink and golden. Interior scenes dazzle as well, with director Lasse Hallström ( “Chocolat”) moving his camera with agility through kitchens and courtyards as Papa and Madame Mallory run their shows, exacting in different ways.
The more spices that Papa and his wunderkind cook son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), can put in their overflowing chicken and seafood dishes, the better, as long as everything is added in the right order. Madame Mallory’s kitchen, by contrast, seems mostly about order, with plating as essential as taste. With Papa’s food, you barely see the plate.
Papa’s expansive approach cannot help but spill across the street, loosening up Madame Mallory. But just a bit, because Mirren is too masterful to allow her character to start out as a caricature, despite her haughty air and condescending remarks.
Madame Mallory’s restaurant draws French dignitaries for its food and also for her hospitality. Though Madame Mallory seems contemptuous of competition, she is gracious to guests and to Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a talented sous chef who wants to become a chef de cuisine.
Mirren crafts a believable human being, who grows to respect Papa as a fellow pro. Were the film focused solely on Papa’s and Madame Mallory’s relationship, it might be better. But the protagonist is the less interesting Hassan, and the story’s thrust his growth as a chef. Though Dayal is handsome and gives Hassan a nice self-assurance, he cannot compete with Puri’s or Mirren’s charisma and especially not their joint charisma.
Papa, Hassan and his adult brother and sister (Amit Shah and Farzana Dua Elahe, bringing great spark to small roles) and two younger siblings first arrived in London from India, but found it too cold. Papa then decided to travel around Europe looking for the perfect spot to open a restaurant. His adult children are openly skeptical about his eventual plan to serve Indian food 100 feet from Madame Mallory’s place.
But Papa loves the crumbling plaster and a courtyard that’s like the outdoor space they had in India. Hassan is intrigued by French cooking, and by Marguerite, who helps the family when they first arrive in town. When the family encounters car trouble, Marguerite brings everyone to her place, serving them fresh-baked bread and local cheeses and tomatoes.
Food porn-wise, nothing else in “Journey” will equal the allure of that cheese and tomato plate, though an omelet comes close. Otherwise, the film rarely causes the mouth to water.
The Indian food entices, but “Journey” does not offer enough of it. Adapted by screenwriter Steven Knight (“Locke”) from Richard C. Morais’ book, “Journey” is less concerned with what Hassan knows than what he can learn about French cuisine. But the movie’s showcase French dishes involve pigeon and veal – delicious to some but gag-worthy to others.
The winning Le Bon is far lovelier to look at, and receives ample screen time playing Hassan’s love interest and professional competition. Yet neither their romance nor rivalry keep us from wishing for more Madame Mallory-Papa duels instead.
But even Mirren and Puri cannot elude the visual and thematic hokum that creeps up at moments throughout the film and ruins its third act. Hallström actually sets off fireworks behind Mirren and Puri during one interaction. He also artificially brightens scenes to heighten their emotion, at one point grossly over-saturating an already beautifully sunlit outdoor shot.
These moments evoke “Chocolat,” also France-set, food-themed and heavy-handed. A “Journey” story line involving a xenophobic French chef (a sneering Clément Sibony) plays too broadly to impart any real sense of native-French prejudice toward immigrants.
For two-thirds of “Journey,” every cloying moment finds a clear-eyed, witty moment to counteract it. Then “Journey” goes off a cliff, presenting an urban setting – as contrast to the cozy village – in laughably clichéd fashion.
Speaking of heavy-handed: At the screening I attended, “Journey” producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg addressed the audience, by video, just before film’s start. They introduced as well as talked up the picture, thus promoting something the audience was seconds away from seeing for itself. Winfrey did most of the touting, her job as American taste arbiter never done.