“Slumdog Restaurateur” would be a snappier title than “The Hundred-Foot Journey” for a cross-cultural culinary conflict in France.
It starts out in India, where the hard-working Kadam family gets caught up in a violent political upheaval that forces them to flee Mumbai. Not least of the things young Hassan (Manish Daval) will miss is the smell — and taste — of his mother’s great cooking. Nothing like it exists in Saint-Antonin, the picturesque southern French village where he, his father and his siblings end up.
What does exist there is Le Saule Pleureur, a celebrated, Michelin-starred French establishment ruled by imperious chef-proprietress Mme. Mallory (Helen Mirren). Its name means Weeping Willow. If anybody tried to open a competing restaurant nearby, there’d be tears, indeed.
'The Hundred-Foot Journey' movietrailer
The Kadam family clashes with Madame Mallory, proprietress of a celebrated French restaurant, after they open their own nearby eatery, until undeniable chemistry causes the Madame to take gifted young chef Hassan under her wing.
Which, of course, is what Papa Kadam (Om Puri) does. His Maison Mumbai features a garish two-story, faux-Indian facade (neon lit) and is not just “nearby” but directly across the street — 100 feet away — from Mme. Mallory’s gastronomic temple. While hers plays subdued Mozart, his blares brash Bollywood tunes.
“If your food is anything like your music,” she snorts, “I’d suggest you tone it down.”
Papa Kadam is not about to do so, and the war is on — a battle of boeuf bourguignon and pigeon aux truffes vs. sea urchins with cauliflower, cumin and coriander. (“The whole world came to India for its spices,” he reminds us.) Flavors vs. sauces. Formality vs. spontaneity. There are daily skirmishes over materiel — of the raw kind: Both of them try to buy up all the good produce and ’shrooms in the village market. Both vie for the ear of the beleaguered mayor (Michel Blanc) with complaints and countercomplaints.
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal.
Rating: PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality.
This 100-foot journey is beyond both of their comfort zones, as far away as the great chef schools in Paris, where gifted Hassan might study if Madame overcame her prejudices, recognized his talent and took him under her wing — 100 small steps for the man, a giant leap for the woman.
Ms. Mirren’s empire here is much smaller but no less structured than the one she ruled over (and won an Oscar for) in “The Queen” (2006). Her uptight Mme. Mallory, striving for the next Michelin edition’s stars, makes the real Queen Elizabeth II look as loose as Queen Latifah. The piquant interactions between her and Mr. Puri — Hassan’s charismatic rascal Papa — provide some of the movie’s most entertaining moments.
You can’t help loving Mr. Puri, a veteran icon of some 250 Indian films. He is a fine actor, in possession of an extraordinary secret weapon: the world’s most gigantic, pockmarked nose. It has more craters than the lunar Sea of Tranquility. You can’t take your eyes off it, even when he and Helen get around to their Last Fox Trot in Paris.
Manish Dayal is very good as humble, sensitive Hassan, and so is pert and perky Charlotte Le Bon as Ms. Mirren’s sweet sous chef, his love interest, who looks like the young, skinny Jacqueline Kennedy. They have complementary huge, expressive eyes.
There are problems, though. The magic movie medium can do wonders with the sensual delights of sight and sound. But it has a much harder time conveying gustatory and olfactory delights on screen. At one point, like one of Pavlov’s legendary dogs, I was moved to make a rare mid-film visit to the concession stand, returning with Parmesan cheesesticks — a serious mistake I won’t make again.
Getting lost in the gastronomic shuffle here is my point: “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is no “Babette’s Feast.” And Lasse Hallstrom (“My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Cider House Rules”) is a good, facile director but not a great one.
Ditto for Richard C. Morais’ facile, feel-good book on which this film is based. Its cliched themes of immigration and racism appealed to Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who are co-producers. (Who else could you want or need after that? Only Jesus comes to mind.) It doesn’t pay to examine the formulaic plot too closely...to ask how an impoverished Indian immigrant papa (“We lost everything!”) gets the big-time capital for his project or how this remote village draws enough customers for two top-drawer eateries.
Suffice to say, as Hassan does, that “food is memory.” It brings people together — or at least to the table. It has healing powers. It’s a politically correct idea, but the recipe for this sweetly sentimental syrup could use a 50 percent reduction in sugar.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com.