The Hundred-Foot Journey
by George Sax
In a brief scene in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, Helen Mirren, as the imperious proprietor of a provincial French restaurant, confronts her kitchen staff with a limp, overcooked stalk of asparagus, the product of a grievous lapse, she makes clear. It’s tempting to treat that stalk as a symbol of the movie’s limp failures. (Didn’t Oscar Wilde advise that the proper response to temptation is to yield to it?) There is some unintended irony in the disparity between the film’s insistence on the importance of superior cooking to human happiness and its own often flavorless results.
Journey’s set-up begins when the Kadam family is forced by violence to flee its native Mumbai and India, taking with them their restaurant’s recipes for dishes like murgh masala and chicken tandoori. In search of a French site in which to start over, they fortuitously get stranded in the southwestern village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. There, Papa Kadam (the distinguished Indian actor, Om Puri) spies an abandoned restaurant and buys it, installing his gifted, studious young son Hassan (Manish Dayal in a winsome performance).
As per the title, there’s an unanticipated problem directly across the road: The Michelin one-star dining establishment of Madame Mallory (Mirren), who won’t brook any presumptuous competition from these dubiously exotic interlopers. What enjoyment the film offers is mostly to be found in the clash of personalities and cultures that results—much abetted by Puri’s spirited acting. Eventually, the excesses of a few very nasty French-provincial chauvinists help turn things toward reconciliation, and a more tepid stretch of movie.
With The Hundred-Foot Journey, Holmstrom is figuratively and literally revisiting the territory in which his Chocolat (2000) was set, which also celebrated the pleasures and social healing promoted by good food. Chocolat had its charms, but they’re more attenuated in this one. Its tone is also more uncertain. Along the way the film’s tribute to Indian gastronomy gets left behind as classic French cuisine becomes the summit of epicurean civilization, and the filmmakers tend to skip quickly by unpleasant, even horrible event turns. The movie feels stretched out and clumsily resolved.
One of its recurring devices is to have Hassan keep opening the case of Indian spices his mother left him. It’s not clear if he has replenished them over the years, or whether they’re just growing stale. Another unintended metaphor?
Watch the trailer for The Hundred-Foot Journey
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