In a recent New York Times piece, A.O. Scott argued that "a self-conscious foodie culture" is one of the last bastions of the middlebrow. His point was to emphasize the democratic virtues of middlebrow culture and lament its recent decline, but The Hundred-Foot Journey won't help his case. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, this foodie flick embodies everything that makes highbrows scoff at middlebrow entertainment: canned sentimentality, corny humor and plotting, and lofty, multicultural ideals that the script serves (or disserves) by making every character into an ethnic stereotype.
Granted, like every piece of culinary cinema worth its fleur de sel, The Hundred-Foot Journey gives good food (and landscape) porn. Director Lasse Hallström makes sure the camera lingers on obscenely ripe tomatoes, fat forest cèpes and painstakingly stuffed pigeons. But where better films would delve into the craft behind these mouth-watering tableaux, this one generally skims the surface, feeding us dreamy platitudes such as "Food is memories" and "Sea urchins taste like life, don't you think?"
Based on the 2010 novel by Richard C. Morais, the film is narrated by Hassan Haji (Manish Dayal), a Mumbai lad who inherited a talent for cooking from his mother. After political strife destroys the family restaurant and takes Mom's life, Hassan and his Dad (Om Puri) and four siblings find asylum in Europe.
In France, a breakdown inspires them to put down stakes in a bucolic village with a perfect restaurant space for sale. The problem: A hundred feet away, the gorgon-esque Mme. Mallory (Helen Mirren) presides over her own restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur. She has a Michelin star she'll defend to the death, and she is not happy with the smells of curry wafting over.
The set-up promises fun, if cliché, culture-clash farce, with both Mirren and Puri playing their roles to the hilt. Affecting a high-toned French accent, she haughtily declares all curries identical to her palate, while he blusters comically and conducts muttered conversations with his dead wife.
Had the movie stuck with these two veteran actors and deepened their characters, it might have been more interesting. Instead, significantly more screen time goes to the pretty young folks: Hassan and Mme. Mallory's friendly sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who gives him an education in haute cuisine that, bien sûr, evolves into romance.
While both actors are likable, their characters are painfully underwritten. Toward the middle of the film, when Mme. Mallory describes Hassan as "arrogant," this comes as a surprise, because we've never seen him do anything but stare soulfully at Marguerite and roll his eyes at his dad's antics. (His poor siblings get even less individuation.) Talented chef or not, Hassan shows so little personality — let alone ambition — that when the film abruptly becomes his coming-of-age story, it feels like we've switched movies.
Once upon a time, Hallström was the critically acclaimed director of films like My Life as a Dog; today, with two Nicholas Sparks movies under his belt, he's all about making already-pretty landscapes and people look even prettier. One need not be a foodie to fantasize about living in this idyllic, sun-washed French village with the options of escargots and authentic Indian food separated by the width of a road. And in a couple of scenes, such as a late one where Mirren and Puri dance at twilight, Hallström gives the film a quiet eloquence and grace.
Watching those moments, one imagines how much more memorable The Hundred-Foot Journey might have been if it were allowed to unfold naturally, without the broad stereotypes and trumped-up conflicts. If this movie were an entrée, it would be full of crowd-pleasing ingredients combined with no regard to the whole flavor profile. And you don't have to be the highbrow kind of foodie to know the result is bland.