"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is one of those feel-good films Hollywood manages to release every summer. Many people eagerly anticipate these films, preferring them to the big-budget special effects filled summer blockbusters. It is entirely predictable, but fun and enjoyable nonetheless.
Many of these films are British and involve down-and-out workers who luck upon an idea to create something that will earn them the money they need ("The Full Monty", "Calendar Girls"). I think "The Hundred-Foot Journey" qualifies as an American film - the producers are Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey - but it clearly wants to fill a void in this genre. This 'American' film has a British lead actress (Helen Mirren), Indian co-stars (Om Puri, Manish Dayal) and Swedish director (Lasse Hallstrom, "The Cider House Rules", "Chocolat") all on board to make the film more marketable in foreign countries and territories.
The Kadam family (Om Puri is Papa, Manish Dayal is Hassan, the family chef and there are four other siblings) owned a very popular restaurant in India. Forced to leave, they travel to Europe, trying out different countries. England is too cold and rainy, so they hop into the broken-down family van and start driving. In the French countryside, the van's brakes give out and they find an old, vacant restaurant directly across the street from Madame Mallory's (Mirren) Michelin-starred restaurant. Naturally, she doesn't want to have the Indian restaurant the family plans as a neighbor and does everything she can to thwart their efforts. This leads to an ongoing battle between Mallory and Papa. But she soon realizes Hassan is a very talented cook and offers him an apprenticeship at her restaurant. There, Hassan meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the sous chef. They seem headed for a romantic relationship, but she soon becomes jealous of Hassan's talents.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and written by Steven Knight ("Eastern Promises", "Dirty Pretty Things", writer and director of "Locke"), "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is a perfectly pleasant diversion, a nice way to spend a late summer evening. But there are no surprises, which is the only surprise given the pedigree of the screenwriter. Given his other credits, you might expect something with a little more bite from Knight.
Sitting in the theater, with your loved one and friends, you want to laugh a little, fall in love a little, watch some great food being made. Watching "Journey" is the equivalent of receiving a warm hug – sometimes you just need one.
And it makes you hungry. I consider it a good omen that we have two films this summer embracing the food-porn genre. In "Chef", director Jon Favreau makes us salivate just watching the lead character make a grilled cheese. In "Journey", director Hallstrom treats us to two different cultures. We are meant to appreciate the Indian food more, with its rich, exotic, warm spices and flavorful sauces. And these scenes are fantastic, they will reawaken your desire for and love of these exotic blends. Because the two restaurants are across the street from one another, Hallstrom also shows us the ultra-fancy, much more refined French cuisine created at Madame Mallory's. These comparisons are meant to show how much better the Indian food is, how much more flavorful, earthy and exotic. But the French food looks equally appetizing. This means we the viewers are constantly barraged by drool-worthy shots of food. I would recommend that you eat before you watch "Journey". Or at least have reservations for after the movie because you will be famished.
Helen Mirren is a great actress - she brings a unique quality to almost every role she inhabits, giving the character depth and history through the conviction of her portrayal. Perhaps even more impressive, she seems determined to not get pigeonholed into one type of character. From her Oscar winning portrayal of "The Queen" to an aging Mossad agent in the little-seen "The Debt", it is difficult to say there is a 'Helen Mirren' role. As Madame Mallory, she brings to life every fuss budgety detail that has made her restaurant famous and worthy of one Michelin star. There is a nice progression for her character as well. Initially, she is dead set against the Kadam family and their restaurant. But a number of factors lead her to change her absolute and narrow mindset. The beauty of having someone like Mirren portray Mallory is that she elevates the character and helps you forget how predictable the role is. The change in Mallory is not that subtle, but it is playful and fun.
Manish Dayal plays Hassan. Throughout, he seems to be on a "Journey" of discovery. Initially, his family is uprooted from India causing them to all live through a weird period of re-adjustment in London. But London isn’t for them, so they set- off again, wandering through Europe. When they arrive in France, you can see Hassan waking up, ready to experience everything the beautiful countryside has to offer. As the family preps their restaurant for its grand opening, he begins to explore the area and becomes friends with Marguerite and they begin to teach each other about their respective cultures and cuisines. When Mallory learns how good a cook Hassan actually is, she offers him an internship and the rest, as they say, is history.
Om Puri, the Morgan Freeman of Indian actors - plays Papa - he always seems to play the wise, old patriarch of the family. He is the one with the vision and the one who decides that they should build an Indian restaurant in this small village in the south of France. He also isn't about to let Madame Mallory gain the upper hand. Once they begin their little battles, each initially approaches the clash as warriors, but over time, they begin to play the battles as more of a game of chess, trying to figure out how to one-up their opponent and provide a little speed-bump to the challenger’s day.
Charlotte Le Bon is Marguerite, the female sous chef working for Mallory. Before Hassan arrives, she is the one working towards becoming a chef, she is the one who shows the most promise. Despite her friendship with Hassan, she begins to feel threatened and she pulls back, becoming distant, unhelpful when she realizes Hassan has caught the professional eye of her boss. Marguerite goes through the most change and it is less predictable than you might imagine.
Lasse Halstrom is a safe director. He has made a number of films that are fairly successful. But if you were to ask someone who directed "The Cider House Rules" or "Safe Haven" or "Dear John" or "Chocolat", most would probably not be able to remember Hallstrom's name. If you are having a discussion with another cinephile and ask he or she to name a Hallstrom film, they would most likely say "My Life as a Dog", a Swedish film that was very successful on the art house circuit. It is also the film that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. made the art house circuit when it was first released. My point is that Hallstrom is not a director who makes especially challenging films. In fact, I just realized almost all of the films he has directed are based on books. Perhaps this is his calling card; he safely translates the book, allowing the fans of the original material to relive the book they love as a film. Because he doesn't have a particularly distinctive style he doesn’t impose this on the source material or try to change it. He clearly does good work, but his films lack anything that would set them apart.
Some film directors want to hit you on the head or show off their style. Hallstrom wants to give you a hug. Nothing is wrong with either. But when all you get is hugs, you sometimes want a little fireworks as well.
Hallstrom's "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is good and the perfect way to have a food-gasm for the second time this summer.