“Slumdog Millionaire” meets “Ratatouille“ in the culinary comedy “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” Surprisingly, it’s a rather bland meal although spiced up with food-porn scenes of Indian and French dishes to excite any viewer’s salivary glands.
So let the brain cells rest for this one and enjoy the purely sensory experience.
The film comes from Lasse Hallström, who perfected the romanticized postcard France in “Chocolat” (2000) and now extends the franchise in this film. Writer Steven Knight cooked up a script based on Richard C. Morais’ debut novel with similar cross-cultural ingredients.
More crucially, the movie comes from entertainment heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Indian media powerhouse Reliance Entertainment.
So many cooks in such a small a kitchen!
Let’s start with the good news: The film nicely utilizes two international stars although the odds are you’ll only recognize one. They are Helen Mirren and Om Puri. The former is, of course, the Queen but the latter a few readers may know as an extraordinary character actor in countless Bollywood and British films.
Strictly speaking, it’s Mirren’s film although in fairness even she’s not the lead. That distinction belongs to an extremely handsome and charismatic actor named Manish Dayal. It’s a low-key performance in the key role but that works when playing opposite strong actors.
Dayal plays a member of a Mumbai Moslem family run out of the country by Hindu extremist in an early section that a film in a feel-good mode scarcely has time to dwell on: A mob burns down the family restaurant, mom dies, let’s move on.
The key point is this: A family of restaurateurs lands in England, finds the climate and vegetables too soggy and flees to the continent where the car conveniently breaks down in the impossibly picturesque southern French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.
There Papa (Puri) falls in love with and immediately — and without due diligence — buys a rundown restaurant to resurrect the family business of superior Indian cuisine. Only later does he discover the old house is situated right across a tiny country road from a Michelin-star classical haute cuisine restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Mirren).
From here on in, you can pretty much write the story since everything is wholly predictably and the lack of true conflict or challenging obstacles is astonishing for a film with this pedigree.
There is a winsome French sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who has flirtatious relationship with Papa’s extraordinary talented culinary son Hassan (Dayal); xenophobic hotheads in Madame’s kitchen; a food fight that turns into a mutual admiration society between Papa and Madame; and ultimately another Michelin star if only Hassan crosses that road (one hundred feet away to be exact) and learns to cook a proper French omelet.
If you like a pseudo-French confection like “Chocolat” with a bit of Bollywood logic thrown in, then this is your feel-good film of the (late) summer. Given the alternatives, that’s not a bad deal.
The film races by subjects that might have proven vastly more interesting than this Disney-esque French postcard — cultural clashes, restaurant kitchen subcultures, the cutthroat world of haute cuisine, the French obsession of Michelin stars and postmodern gastronomy of deconstructed surreal laboratory food of the El Bulli persuasion.
Alas, Spielberg and Winfrey didn’t sign up for a small, inquisitive indie movie. Between a steak tartare and a postcard of one, they’ll chose the latter every time.
So on the menu are easy and obvious comedy, romance lite, fireworks in the skies (for what is never clear), storybook countrysides and characters especially Hassan’s family that recede into the wings as the main stage becomes preoccupied with its fairytale.
Indeed the two main dwellings do not even exist in close proximity but rather get married on screen via digital trickery, false fronts and a massive blue screen. Thus Hollywood magic trumps incisive drama or savvy romantic comedy. But a generous portion of chicken tikka masala or coq au vin will make everything seem much better.
Open: August 8, 2014 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present in association with Participant Media and Image Nation an Amblin Entertainment/Harpo Films production
Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clement Sibony, Vincent Elbaz, Juhi Chawla, Alban Aumard, Shuna Lemoine, Antoine Blanquefort
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Based on a novel by: Richard C. Morais
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Juliet Blake
Executive producers: Caroline Hewitt, Carla Gardini, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: David Gropman
Music: A.R. Rahman
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
PG rating, 122 minutes