After losing their beloved matriarch and Mumbai restaurant in a fire, the Kadam family uproots and travels to Europe. When their brakes fail in Southern France, Papa Kadam (Om Puri, "East Is East") listens to the voice of his deceased wife, who tells him 'brakes break for a reason,' and lo, a rustic old restaurant is for sale in Saint-Antonin. But it is directly across the street from the Michelin starred Le Saule Pleureur and its haughty proprietress Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) doesn't take kindly to the ethnic invasion in "The Hundred-Foot Journey."
Swedish director Lasse Hallström, that auteur of middlebrow Crate and Barrel movies (with the occasional dogleg into Nicholas Sparks territory), is back with this adaptation of Richard C. Morais's novel. Adapted by Steven Knight (whose "Dirty Pretty Things" also dealt with immigrants in Europe), this journey would feel a lot like Hallström's own "Chocolat," where an outsider shook up a small French village with her spicy wares - if it were a better film. Here's a movie that covers too much ground and in the process loses focus on what should be its primary draw - the cuisine. Instead we must content ourselves with watching two old pros, Mirren and Puri, battle their way towards their inevitable romance.
At least that part's enjoyable, as the more central romance involves the younger generation and it's a bit of a muddle. Hassan (Manish Dayal in his film debut) is the Kadam with a genius gift for chefery and his interest in the local produce leads him to Mallory's sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, "Yves Saint Laurent"), the young woman who rescued them from their hillside crash. She's impressed by his skills when, after lending him some classic French cookbooks, he immediately masters the classic five French sauces. When Hassan sets his sights on winning a place in Mallory's kitchen, she (apparently?) feels betrayed.
But that's jumping ahead into the second movie within this mishmash. The most fun is to be had with its initial setup, when Papa converts his old stone farmhouse into Maison Mumbai, a Bollywood extravaganza complete with lighted false front, blaring music and his comely daughter Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe) in traditional garb to lure in customers. He must pull out all the stops, as Madame isn't above checking out his menu to buy up all his ingredients, her sense of taste and class outraged by the garish din across the road. Things veer sideways after a hate crime suddenly melts Mallory, leading into battle number two - that between father and son and Mallory's thirty year quest for her second star. A third act becomes yet another movie, as Hassan becomes a culinary star in Paris by adding Indian spices to molecular gastronomy.
Like Papa's beat up old vehicle whose brakes go, Hallström's film veers wildly all over the road, never slowing down enough to let us see the creation of great cuisine. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren glorifies the items that go into it - the spices, the sea urchins, the glorious vegetables and foraged mushrooms - but the only dish we watch prepared is an omelet. The film celebrates fireworks as much as food, Hallström unashamedly plopping an explosion right between his costars as Mirren hand feeds Puri, just in case we missed his point. We see the Indian restaurant full, yet bypass the French locals' reactions to its food.
Mirren is utterly convincing as a French restaurateur and charms with her gracious, albeit instantaneous, embrace of the different. Puri gives obstinance warmth and provides naturalistic comedy. Dayal is wonderfully transformed from rustically good looking to sleekly handsome and is fine in his role, but Le Bon is all eyes and pursed mouth (the better to 'moue' her food). Amit Shah, Dillon Mitra and Aria Pandya have little to do as the remainder of the Kadam family. The great French actor Michel Blanc ("Monsieur Hire") acts as an early arbiter as Saint-Antonin's mayor.
Hallström's production is typically lush, his dueling restaurants beautifully and contrastingly appointed, his chosen location picture postcard perfect, all set to a lot of traditional Indian music and a dash of Charles Aznavour. But "The Hundred-Foot Journey" feels like a five mile race where some joker's kept moving the finishing line.
Robin did not see this film.
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