by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
The well-made romantic comedy — aka “romcom” — resembles a well-cooked dish. It must have a nice mix of the proper ingredients and not be cooked overly long. “The Hundred Foot Journey,” — now available on DVD — which has been aptly described as “exotic comfort food,” falls shy on both requirements. There’s a bit too much “rom,” way too little “com,” and the whole concoction has been left in the oven too long. If romance is predictable (think “star-crossed lovers”) and comedy thrives on unpredictability (consider the neatly turned punch line), this well-intentioned work has too much of the former ingredient, so that we pretty much know what happens to the main characters within 10 minutes of knowing them but don’t get brought up short (or waked up) by laughter enough to keep our attention.
It’s hard to fault the actors, especially the redoubtable Helen Mirren as the pivotal character in the story. She plays Madame Mallory, proprietor of Le Saule Pleurer (“The Weeping Willow”), a Michelin one-star restaurant in France’s Pyrenees region. She aspires to get that second star before she dies, as her husband has before the story opens, so she runs a tight ship, with little room for error. One of her sous chefs, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), shows similar devotion, even scoring the nearby country for fresh currants or mushrooms, as well as attempting to master the five basic French sauces.
So they are dismayed when the Kadams, a displaced Indian family burned out of their successful Bombay restaurant during sectarian riots, opens up a competing eatery directly across the road. Director Lasse Hallstrom and cinematographer Linus Sandgren continually emphasize the geographical space separating the establishments, a pretty obvious metaphor for the cultural gulf between the owners. The father of the Indian family, played by Om Puri, having lost his wife in the disastrous fire — though he still talks to her for advice — is determined to make a go of it in this small French village, despite its citizens having little to no acquaintance with Indian food.
Luckily, his son Hassan (Manish Dayal) has learned to cook at his mother’s literal knee, so he can introduce the locals to the magnificent, colorful array of Indian dishes. He also becomes a student of French haute cuisine but learns how to enhance it by adding a soupcon of the exotic from his mother’s treasured spice box. Surviving first Madame M.’s frosty mien and subversive practices, then an attack by some local xenophobes, the Kadams make a go of it, though international relations remain frosty.
Will there be rapprochement between the two warring parties? Will both the younger and the older male/female pairs become romantically entangled? Will upward mobility and family values somehow be reconciled? Take a guess.
Screenwriter Steven Knight, working with Richard C. Morais’s novel, insufficiently telescopes the plot, and film editor Andrew Mondshein lets scenes run too long. (We have to watch every step of the way across the intervening road, for instance, rather than watching a character start off from one restaurant and cutting to his or her arrival at the next.) Hallstrom’s pacing is too languid, as well, reducing the comic momentum to a crawl. And A.R. Rahman’s music, despite attempting to fuse the two traditions, lacks originality.
All that said, “The Hundred Foot Journey,” rated “PG,” is a pleasant enough diversion, a tranquil island amidst the comic book/video game blockbusters surrounding it. Mirren’s fine shadings are fun to watch, though she has done this grumpy lady with a soft heart act before. The shots of food, oddly enough, don’t make one want to rush to the nearest French or Indian restaurants. If you want genuine food porn, rent the DVD of “Chef.”