I confess that I had brushed this one off at first. Between the producing credits from Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, the directing credit from the guy who made Chocolat, and the reviews that described this one as a total mediocrity, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But a colleague of mine told me to take a closer look. I did, and I found that this screenplay was written by Steven Knight. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, then you really need to see Locke — one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far — which was written and directed by Knight. The guy directed Tom Hardy in a one-man show shot entirely in a car, and he wrote this movie that was supposed to be so much uninspired fluff? No, there had to be more to it than that.
The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the story of Hassan (Manish Dayal), who started learning to cook at an early age while growing up in Mumbai. Unfortunately, his family gets caught in the middle of some political riot, in which the family’s restaurant is burned down and Hassan’s mother is killed. A short while later, the family heads west, driving through Europe in search of a place to start over. Their car breaks down just outside a French town, and the patriarch (known only as Papa, played by Om Puri) finds an abandoned restaurant on sale for cheap. The bad news is that it’s cheap because the previous owners were run out of business.
Across the street, a mere hundred feet away (hence the title), is a highly lauded French restaurant with a prestigious Michelin star. The restaurant is run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who’s hell-bent on earning a second Michelin star. Thus we have a battle of cultures (between India and France), an underdog story (the small family business against the established juggernaut), a coming-of-age story in which our young protagonist (Hassan) learns to hone his gift at the possible expense of his heritage… you get the idea.
To address the elephant in the room, it bears mentioning that we’ve already had an ethnically charged dramedy about food this year, referring of course to Chef. The movies are absolutely more different than they are alike, but there are still a couple of comparisons worth making. For example, the Indian culture permeating Journey is pretty much exclusively used as part of the ongoing culture war. The movie is overwhelmingly blunt in its use of Indian spices and methods in traditionally French dishes as an illustration of how the two restaurants are beginning to collaborate to create something new and fantastic. Compare that to Chef, which uses Latin culture more like a spice in itself. Jon Favreau could have used any culture in the context of his film and very little difference would’ve been made, but the Central American cuisine gave the film a distinct flavor (for lack of a better term), and that Latin music made me want to get up and dance.
As to which approach is better, that’s obviously a matter of opinion. But for my part, the Mexican aspect of Chef put a smile on my face like the Indian aspect of Journey never did.
Then of course we have the movies’ approach to food. In Journey, the characters tend to talk about food in painstaking terms and flowery descriptions. Through emotions, actions, and words, the characters describe their feelings toward food and precisely why they choose to make a recipe just so. If anyone out there has seen Chocolat, it’s very much more of the same from director Lasse Hallstrom. The approach works far better than I could possibly describe, but still not nearly as well as what I saw in Chef. Don’t get me wrong, the camerawork in Journey has some nice shots of food and I could easily understand why the characters were passionate about their craft. Even so, the movie could never make my mouth water like Chef did without a single line of dialogue.
(Side note: Hell, even The Lunchbox — another Indian-themed movie about food released earlier this year — did a better job of letting me smell and taste the heavenly cuisine on display.)
Judging the film on its own merit, I must say that the visuals didn’t impress me on the whole. The shots were very colorful and gorgeous, make no mistake, but the camera movements were uninspired and Hallstrom shows a distracting preference for unnecessary close-ups. Then again, it should be little surprise that the camerawork is as cliched as the storytelling.
I’m sorry to say that the critics’ accusations of being tired and predictable are not unfounded. I’ve already implied that the film cycles through at least half a dozen storylines that we’ve already seen umpteen times before, and every single expected beat is hit precisely on cue. Though there are a few exceptions here and there, and this is what makes a crucial difference.
Madame Mallory is a key example. In a basic underdog story, she would be a one-dimensional villain out to crush the competition at any cost just because she’s a soulless bitch. And that’s exactly how it is at first. Even forgiving her impossibly snooty attitude (she is French, after all), Mallory is shown to be the kind of person who wants to make everyone else just as miserable as she is. She sinks to some egregious depths in the name of competition, and she flatly humiliates anyone who tries to approach with an olive branch. Yet the character is redeemed because there are some lines she won’t cross. It takes a while for her to discover it, but she does eventually learn that there are some things she will not tolerate in pursuing the upper hand. This prompts her to take a step back and try to set things right, which begins a development arc that Helen Mirren plays with aplomb.
Then we have Papa and Hassan, both of whom have development arcs that could be traced with a ruler. Papa is stubborn to a fault, but his familial love is palpable and his dialogue is very endearing in a cranky sort of way. As for Hassan, it’s always made blatantly clear that he’s being positioned as the bridge between cultures. Still, his curious and sincere nature are enough to win audience sympathy. It also helps that the film clearly shows Hassan working and studying hard to perfect his craft, which always makes for a far more interesting protagonist than someone’s who’s simply born gifted. Last but not least, both roles are portrayed with actors who radiate enough energy and passion to dominate their roles.
The weak link of the main cast is unquestionably Marguerite, the love interest played by Charlotte Le Bon. The character makes a strong impression early on, but the plot visibly struggles to find reasons for keeping her involved as the narrative progresses. There are times when she’s Hassan’s bitter rival, there are times when she’s his lover, and she constantly switches from one to the other with no reason aside from “because the plot said so.” There’s even one scene in which we clearly see Marguerite going out with someone else, and the matter is never raised again. Pretty much the only reason why this character even remotely works is because of the casting. Le Bon has a face that lights up the screen, and her chemistry with Dayal is more than strong enough to power the romance. Le Bon may be a relative newcomer, but she certainly has a ton of potential star power. Can’t wait to see more from her.
On a final miscellaneous note, it should come as little surprise that the movie with French and Indian characters has a lot of foreign-language dialogue. The characters speak primarily in English, and the foreign-language lines are very brief, but there were still enough of them that I wished for the occasional subtitle.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a movie that gets by entirely on charm. The plot is absolutely predictable and cliched (with wonky pacing in the third act, I might add), but I have a hard time holding it against a movie with this much passion. It’s clearly obvious that everyone on both sides of the camera wanted to make a deeply enjoyable movie, and that sense of fun is infectious. Of course, it also helps that the cast is exceedingly good and they have some punchy dialogue to work with. The story may hit every single prescribed story beat like clockwork, but it hits those beats so admirably well that I couldn’t help having a good time.
In short, it’s a feel-good movie that actually made me feel good. If that sounds like something you’re in the mood for… then go watch Chef. And The Lunchbox. And then this one. In that order.