For Lasse Halstrom’s latest film about romance, xenophobia, and classic cooking skills, the “Chocolat” filmmaker again returns to the French countryside to explore how food is, well, just a lot like love. Based on Richard C. Morais’ bestselling novel of the same name, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” centers on the Kadam family, Indian expatriates looking for a fresh start in a small French town. The food may be delicious and appealing, but the environment is surprisingly bitter and unsettling. Still, an amiable cast and a satisfying enough story make “The Hundred-Foot Journey” stick to your ribs, even if it’s hard to swallow early on.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” opens with a much longer one, tracing the path of the Kadam family as they shove off from an incendiary India for a rainy England (one filled with “soulless” veggies that irritate the restaurateur clan) before eventually settling into a tiny French hamlet. The Kadams are running away from the past – particularly patriarch Papa (Om Puri) – but still looking forward to a bright future, especially for middle son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a talented chef who is constantly sharpening his skills.
Papa eventually finds the family a home and a business, thanks to a rundown former restaurant that he imagines will echo the successes of the ruined one they left behind in India. There’s just one tiny problem – the new place is directly across the street from an old place (a hundred feet, actually, imagine that!), a lauded, Michelin-starred, traditional French restaurant run by the ruthless Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a monstrous widow who has never heard of “healthy competition.” Maddened by her loud, foreign, boisterous– and, even more problematic, talented – new neighbors, Madame Mallory embarks on a scorched earth campaign that Papa is only too happy to battle against.
Hassan, however, is only really interested in working on his cooking skills – both as they apply to his luscious Indian cuisine and to the finer points of French cooking – a dedication that will eventually lift him far beyond the petty debates that Papa and Madame Mallory so relish. But there is one small issue, the problem of the pretty sous chef who works for Madame Mallory, the only real distraction to Hassan’s passion.
Originally the family’s savior, one who offers them safe passage, food, and shelter when they first arrive in town, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) swiftly turns cold once she discovers that the family is in the restaurant business and that Hassan is their most talented cook. Marguerite’s dedication to her craft and career is compelling – here is a young woman who places her professional advancement over possible romantic pursuits, and is unapologetic in the process – but Le Bon’s performance isn’t nuanced enough to capitalize on those possibilities, and her Marguerite often reads as being unreasonable and just kind of mean. The film itself is also frequently unreasonable and just kind of mean, which makes Marguerite’s quick rejections feel like too much kindling on an already hot fire.
Madame Mallory is also career-driven – she wants nothing more than another Michelin star for her beloved restaurant, mainly because it’s the only thing keeping her going since her husband kicked the bucket in what was presumably an act of self-preservation to get away from his shockingly bitter better half – but her motivations turn her into an actual villain. Mirren has never been less appealing than she is during the first half of the film, bent on destroying the hopes and dreams of a family that have already had their hearts stomped on repeatedly. She’s an outsized villain, and one of the true pleasures of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is when Madame Mallory finally eases up and stops subjecting both the Kadams and the audience to her gut-wrenching machinations. (Like any good baddie, Madame Mallory has her very own butler, a mild-mannered Brit who seems beleaguered and terrified for the majority of the narrative.)
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” runs all over the map when it comes to its tone, zinging between wrenching family drama, amusing business farce, low-key romance, and lush culinary adventure. At best, it’s confusing and strange. At worst, it’s actually offensive and sloppy. An early glimpse of the family’s matriarch, burning up in a fire that kills her and flattens their beloved restaurant, dissolves into a shot of Hassan cooking meat on a fire, a strange choice that’s, yes, in bad taste. That unease also translates to the film’s flow, which bobs and weaves without any sense of pattern or basic narrative structure. It’s mostly gentle enough, but the film’s third act is a strange stop and start affair that winds up and back down in a dizzying manner. A big plot movement in film’s final 20 minutes feels tacked on and rushed through, and its sudden location change is weird and unexpected.
The film also has a poor sense of the passage of time from top to bottom – while it’s often hard to tell what time of day it is (is it sunset? is it sunrise? someone say something that can tip us off!), on a larger level, it’s even more difficult to determine how many years go by during the entire course of the film. A section that’s noted as a span six months feels significantly longer, and only one character’s look changes in any notable way during its runtime (even the younger Kadam kids never appear to age).
Yet “The Hundred-Foot Journey” still manages to finish strong, thanks to a genuinely sweet ending that, probably by design, caps off a mixed cinematic meal with the film equivalent of a show-stopping dessert. Luscious, fluffy, and a bit frivolous, it still manages to satisfy and it goes a long way to erase any lingering bad tastes. “The Hundred-Foot Journey” might not always please the palate, but it’s tasty enough to make a meal out of.