Like Curry For Chocolat: Hallstrom Sticks to the Fruits of the Bestseller List
If you’re going to compare director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, The Hundred-Foot Journey to his extensive filmography over the past decade, then it stands out like a bright shiny penny. Another of Hallstrom’s adaptations of recently beloved bestselling novels, this tries to recreate the magical culinary delights that drove his 2000 hit Chocolat to such great heights. Here he has stapled another grand actress into the cast with Helen Mirren (moonlighting with her best French accent—the magical chocolate film had Juliette Binoche) and has producers like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg behind it. It’s an entirely prim and proper endeavor and appears clearly calibrated for a particular audience that favors a certain conservative strain to storytelling, where life’s uglier conceits like carnal knowledge and racist tendencies of the pastoral French are brushed sprightly aside without much ado. Enriched with a healthy dose of an unlikely change-of-heart and a fantastical rags-to-riches artifice, it should be exactly the film those hankering to see it would want it to be, wrapped neatly and nicely in a shiny box.
Owning a successful restaurant in Bombay, the Kadam family seems to enjoy a rather lucrative existence. But when tragedy strikes, causing the family to lose both the restaurant and its matriarch, Papa Kadam (Om Puri) relocates his family to London. But the glum weather soon drives them away from England, at least that’s the excuse the family tells Customs officers as they travel through Europe looking for a new home. Breaking down in the French countryside, they stumble upon the small town Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and are assisted by a lovely young ingénue, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Papa finds an abandoned restaurant property and decides that the family is meant to set up shop in this village. Only, the rural folk already have a restaurant at their disposal, an esteemed establishment that happens to have a Michelin star and is run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Undeterred by these seeming odds, Papa is confident that the incredible culinary talents of his son, Hassan (Manish Dayal) will drive the success of an Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai. But the Kadam family underestimates just how much Madame Mallory doesn’t want them there.
There was a time when Hallstrom was an intriguing name in the cinematic realm, though you’d have to scroll back to his work in the 1990s to see real evidence of this. Lately, he seems to routinely guide us through whatever sludge he’s taken a handsome paycheck to helm, and The Hundred-Foot Journey feels like a safe bet of a film, reaching only for a wan pleasantry.
Helen Mirren, as usual, is enjoyable to watch, though a transformation as competitive ice-queen to an unlikely love interest for Om Puri is rather improbable, at least how it rather disruptively unfolds here. The developing romance between Manish Dayal, forced to contend with a character arc that’s tepid and devoid of emotion, and Charlotte Le Bon, who has a rather bird-like Winona Ryder screen presence, is inevitably used for obvious finale effect.
As politely charming as its main players tend to be, the film proves to be stiffly resistant to dealing with serious issues and fleshing out supporting characters. What happens to that pesky, graffiti prone racist played so sullenly by Clement Sibony, whose antics cause serious physical harm and property damage? Sternly and irrevocably dismissed by Dame Helen he is. And then you might miss the fact that it’s Michel Blanc starring as the mayor, a notable French actor who has appeared in a variety of important works, including some great titles from Bertrand Blier and Patrice Leconte.
A.R. Rahman’s sorely abused score stands out as more of a presence than many of the film’s shushed characters, supplying a steady stream of exotic, phantom wisps of sound every time Hallstrom wishes to establish a wistful mysticism around Hassan’s magical culinary gifts.
It’s a typical and almost taken-for-granted use of music in a film featuring Indian characters made for white or Euro audiences, it seems, so it’s no surprise that among Rahman’s extensive credits as composer to note that he also worked on Slumdog Millionaire (2008). But for all the aspects of The Hundred-Foot Journey (speaking of which, the hundred feet between the restaurant properties seems a miscalculated distance) that one could possibly bemoan, this is at least a painless tonic compared to the horrendously awful output of late from Hallstrom, including the likes of Safe Haven (2013) and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). If films about the culinary arts revolved around the same strictures to obtain something like a Michelin star rating, The Hundred-Foot Journey would always and forever be a big fat zero.