The Hundred-Foot Journey is charming, but shows little restraint

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2 out of 4 stars

It’s the charming tale of two feuding “families” who ultimately learn a lesson about “coexistence.” Doesn’t exactly break new ground, does it?  In some way, shape, or form, we know how this will end up. The Hundred-Foot Journey, a slightly cloying, slightly charming film adaptation of the book by Richard C. Morais, never reaches outside of its charming boundaries. However, the film could have taken a few more steps towards subtlety if given the cue to do so from the director (who should know better). It’s somewhat sweet, but fatally flawed.

The-Hundred-Foot-Journey-PosterThe Kadam family from Mumbai decides to travel through Europe searching for a place to settle down and open a restaurant. The son Hassan (Manish Dayal) learned cooking from his late mother and has become a savant in Indian cuisine. His Papa (Om Puri) crashes their family’s van outside a small town in France and, upon investigation, the clan decides to buy a property there to start the family business.

Unfortunately the property sits across the street (“a hundred feet” or so) from a Michelin-star French restaurant headed by the stoic Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who finds the Kadams’ presence somewhat problematic (for some reason). The rivalry between the two restaurants becomes complicated as Mallory shows hints of her admiration for Hassan’s skill, and especially as Hassan’s relationship with Mallory’s sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte de Bon) shows hints of romance.

The accomplished director Lasse Hallström can handle light-hearted comedy and the producers clearly knew of his work on Chocolat and wanted a sure-fire expert on similar material. However, this adaptation follows the beats of Chocolat so closely that Hallström seems to be spinning his wheels. His direction of actors this time around leans towards the overtly sentimental and he implements (there really is no other way of putting it) “food porn pictures” with more of a sledgehammer than a paintbrush. But he otherwise gives his same beautiful portraits of rustic France and chuckle-worthy moments of light comedy. None of this necessarily sins cinematically, but if you have seen Chocolat before, you will either be bored by the entire endeavor or have a great time watching Chocolat 2.

Charlotte Le Bon (Publicity still)
Charlotte Le Bon
(Publicity still)

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle and Promised Land) provides softer edges, heavy treatments of natural light, and lens flares for a “modern” twist, but they seem somewhat mismatched with the material (“I said Lyonnais, not Michael Bay!”). The art directors turn up the volume on contrasts between cultures, moderately succeeding in preventing a breach of subtlety. For example, the difference in design of the two competing restaurants never distracts and feels apropos; however, the treatment of modern cuisine in Paris implements bold colors and shapes to show the “evil” of molecular gastronomy (I’m not sure if the book follows suit, but the demonizing approach feels a tad out of touch).

On the topic of subtle, the talented composer A.R. Rahman oddly shows no sense of restraint, orchestrating in three vastly different styles for the three different locales. This Sesame Street didacticism on culture wars woefully distracts from the action on screen.

The screenplay adaptation (of the novel by Richard C. Morais) is shockingly handled by the usually edgy Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke).  He gives some wonderful one-liners, but otherwise has fallen into some basic writing traps.  Knight amps up the culture clash occasionally to a frustratingly obvious level and telegraphs relationship developments far too early to prevent “cheese” from appearing on screen. Additionally his episodic framework, though moderately successful at first, falls apart in a far too clearly outlined third act that dropped in from another movie.  Fortunately, his treatment of character relationships elicits smiles throughout. He provides quaint dialogue, particularly between couples, which the actors tackle with panache.

Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren (Publicity still)
Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren
(Publicity still)

Even as the closest figure this film has to a villain, Mirren provides buckets of charm with every caustic line she utters. Yet she occasionally seems to play past her emotional limits and subsequently rings somewhat false next to the other actors. Dayak oozes charisma and fares somewhat better than Mirren, although in his stodgy third act Hassan seems somewhat forced. More importantly, Dayak’s connection to his mother disappears after the opening scene and his raison d’être disappears. Puri handles this connection much better, the weight of the world holding him down emotionally and, it would almost seem, physically. He and Amit Shah (playing Hassan’s brother Mansur) provide many of the film’s funniest moments as well and play them to perfection. And de Bon takes what could have easily been the simple, one-dimensional ingénue and gives her some lovely edges as well as some real bite.

A fair warning: eat before you enter. On some level, this is a two-hour food commercial, though with a lesson in laissez-faire. Even if we know this fable backwards and forwards, the potential artistry with regard to subtlety could have kept this from turning into the mediocre product we are presented. Lukewarm direction and misguided production values won’t cut it. With a sweet story like this one, an audience needs just the right amount of spice.