‘The Hundred-Foot Journey:’ Film Review

This is what the marketing people call “counter programming.”

We are nearing the end of the summer film season, and the studios will sometimes counter program movies to contrast with all the big-budget, effects-driven blockbusters that have been dominating the landscape since the first of May.  In some ways it’s a sound marketing strategy.  I’m not sure why there isn’t an annual romantic comedy slated for summer release any more, as they used to serve as good date movies.  There used to be.  When Harry Met Sally was a hit summer movie.  Sleepless in Seattle was a hit summer movie.

I can only speak for myself, but by the end of July I do get blockbuster fatigue and look forward to the fall movies that tend to offer more substance.  There are only so many explosions I can process in a three-month span of time.  Also, the over-50 crowd is almost always underserved by the modern film industry, and the summer season accentuates the lack of sophisticated movies aimed at adults.  Last week’s release of Universal’s James Brown biopic, Get on Up, was an attempt to counter program the summer market, but Guardians of the Galaxy took up all the oxygen in the room, and Universal would have probably been wise to release the James Brown picture in October instead.

This week, Disney and DreamWorks are attempting a late summer counter program of their own with The Hundred-Foot Journey, a movie squarely and almost defiantly aimed at the adult market.  It’s based on the acclaimed novel of the same name and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, marking their first collaboration since The Color Purple back in 1985.  It was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish filmmaker who was once Harvey Weinstein’s go-to guy to make sturdy, middlebrow Oscar bait movies like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and The Shipping News.  It’s likely not Oscar bait, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody that Hallstrom has delivered another sturdy, middlebrow picture.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is essentially a good HBO movie, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all, just as a point of comparison.  It’s perfectly agreeable and well-acted, but it lacks a certain amount of dramatic oomph.

The great Helen Mirren headlines as Madame Mallory, the imperious owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant that rests in a gorgeous village in the South of France.  Her world is upended by the arrival of theKadam family, who have been displaced from their native India and are looking for a place to put down roots.  The Kadams are also restaurant owners with their son Hassan (Mansih Dayal), who is a bit of a foodie savant, despite having no formal training.  Soon, the Kadams have opened a boisterous, bustling Indian restaurant across the street from Madame Mallory’s very formal French joint.  The two buildings are literally 100 feet apart, thus the title.

As you would imagine, some conflict arises between the ultra-traditional French establishment and the intruding foreign start-up.  In the tech world, they call this a “disruption.”  One of the film’s weaknesses is the conflict barely registers.  It’s Hassan’s growing fascination with French cuisine that builds harmony as he goes to work for Madame Mallory to gain the formal training he lacks. (It’s the hundred-foot journey referred to in the title.)  It’s that training that will launch him to culinary superstardom.

This is going to wind up sounding like I didn’t really like The Hundred-Foot Journey, but I did.  It’s solid entertainment for grownups.  I just think there’s a much better movie in there trying to get out.  Sometimes, it does, but the picture seems too content most of the time to be dependable cinematic comfort food.  There’s a scene early in the film where Madame Mallory berates her staff over a badly cooked sprig of asparagus.  She demands her staff cook with passion, but the film sorely lacks it.  The obvious point of comparison is Jon Favreau’s film Chef from back in May.  Favreau’s movie really captured the passion of food and cooking.  Hallstrom’s movie seems timid about its very subject by comparison.  Even as food porn, Chef blows it out of the water with the beautiful and almost sexy way it shot its cooking sequences.  The Hundred-Foot Journey would have been drastically improved with a hornier approach to the kitchen.

Tangentially, the movie seems very chaste about showing any real conflict that exists between the two restaurants.  It’s all on a tee-hee-hee sort of hijinks level with both sides doing things like buying the local farmers market out from under each other.  The movie is way too polite to deal with any overt racism aimed at the Kadam family; it’s almost all implied or takes place off screen, and it never seems to cause pain to any of the characters.  Even a scene in which vandals try to burn down the Indian restaurant doesn’t really carry any heft. You know the vandals won’t succeed.   As a result, when the walls between the factions start to be dismantled, it really doesn’t have the emotional impact it should.  It’s the kind of movie that disapproves of Madame Mallory’s single-minded quest for Michelin stars, yet celebrates when she gets them.

But, despite that, Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren, and she’s dependably great in this.   She even gets to sport a French accent, which makes her the British Streep.  (The script by Steven Knight very cleverly deals with actors speaking English rather than their native languages.) Mirren can say more with a glance or her posture than practically any actor, and she seems to be winning her war with Father Time pretty handily.  She looks radiant at 70.  Om Puri provides great support as Hassan’s rascally father, and Charlotte Le Bon is charming as Marguerite, Madame Mallory’s sous chef and Hassan’s obligatory love interest.   In fact, the entire cast is pretty beguiling and carries the film.  The movie is likable, because the cast is likable.  The French village itself is lovely and transporting; when you think of an idealized, romantic France, this is what it should look like.  It’s all been gorgeously shot by Linus Sandgren.

There’s a scene when Hassan uses Indian spices to perk up a 200-year-old French recipe.  His reason is that after 200 years, some change can be good.  The Hundred-Foot Journey works as comfort food, but some extra spice would have really perked it up.

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