The Hundred Foot Journey (executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg) is part of the same flavorless, homogenized pedigree of culinary tale that Chocolat (director Lasse Hallström’s previous film) belongs to. And like every other film about Western interaction with Indian cooking and culture (Bend It Like Beckham, Eat Pray Love, and other similarly insipid fare), it inevitably fetishizes and exotisizes. In other words, prepare to be really impressed by the use of cardamom… in everything. Talk about a massive reduction.
The film is about a clash of culinary cultures: the spicy and hearty Indian vs. French haute cuisine. Somewhere in the mix is also a homily on “why can’t we all just get along?” The generally amiable vibes and lush cinematography make the movie palatable enough, but don’t look for too much zest or plot innovation.
Gifted young chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) and his family move to Europe when their family restaurant in India is uprooted. Hassan’s father, played with winsome comedic flair by Om Puri, has his heart set on a French farm house. Hence, the title of the movie, a reference to the divide between Maison Masala and Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur. The competition between the two makes for some amusing moments, replete with Helen Mirren’s endearing turn as the droll Madame Mallory; she has a penchant for verbal barbs of the “Your cooking, like music, could use a little turning down” ilk. Hassan has mastered Indian cooking, but he has his sights set on the French “classics” as well. In an (un)surprising turn of events, he ends up under Madame Mallory’s stern tutelage and then goes on Paris. But is molecular gastronomy enough to stoke the culinary fires in his heart? I think we already know the answer to this one.
Hassan meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame’s sous-chef, and professional and romantic sparks fly…or so we are to believe. For a film dedicated to sensory pleasures, this is one tepid romantic concoction. Their chemistry is so off that, even in the scene where Marguerite tastes the French sauces that Hassan has made for her, all we are left with is feeling nice yet terribly unfulfilled.
The Hundred Foot Journey attempts very earnestly to convey the sheer magic of cooking to the viewer. It wants to remind us that cooking is about memories and life experiences a lot more than it is about pure gastronomic enjoyment. Luckily, the main characters of Papa and Madame Mallory are incredibly compelling and watchable; the rest is only so much trite fluff. The film attempts to tackle more serious issues like ethnic tensions and discrimination against immigrants, but lacks the chops to really address them more than merely as an aside.
And the cooking—well, for newbies, it is enjoyable enough, but for serious gastro aficionados (notice I avoided using the dreaded “foodie”), it will leave you groaning at the idea that Indian cooking is “cool” because it involves sprinkling cardamom on everything, adding fresh cilantro to an omelet, or even worse, making “curries.”
The Hundred Foot Journey is undoubtedly pleasant and, mercifully, not too maudlin. It is not terribly thought-provoking or interesting, but it is tasty enough of a morsel for you to savor at least superficially.