The Hundred-Foot Journey has won one major award so far—director Lasse Hallström the Audience Award at the Norwegian International Film Festival. That makes sense. It’s a mildly enjoyable paint-by numbers film, directed with a certain professional panache from the director of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Dear John, and the overrated Chocolat.
Its cinematography is serviceable, with a few compositional touches that add some flavor, and a soft yet colorful palette that makes the food and the people look equally good. It’s one of those 1940’s liberal-infused offerings that make us feel good about ourselves, as we are complimented by a story that doesn’t even begin to stretch or challenge our views of life and people. Its story is obvious and as predictable as the sunrise, which is both a little eye-rolling and comfortable at the same time.
The story is of a French woman (more on that later) running a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the middle of the French countryside whose life is wildly interrupted by an Indian family who decide to open a restaurant with loud music and louder cuisine. Or is it about the Indian family who settle down in the middle of France and decide to open a restaurant—their family business—and it just happens to be across the street from a respectable but staid French restaurant? The French woman is a widow, the Indian patriarch a widower. Need we say more?
But the actually driver of the plot is the Indian son, who has “the gift” of being a truly talented chef. He gets some help from the attractive sous-chef at the French restaurant, who just happens be about his age. Need we say more?
Deconstructing the casting is perhaps the greatest enjoyment of the film. The young French sous-chef is as lovely as a French pastry, but just shy of perfect due to that wayward tooth—so not too perfect. The Indian father (Om Puri) is rough-hewn and right out of central casting for the grouchy but tender-inside father figure.
It’s the two leads that are fun to look at. Helen Mirren, already a legend and Oscar-winner (The Queen), is actually miscast as the French restauranteuse. Instead of having her be English and settling in France, which would have helped everything, the film insists that we believe that Mirren is French. The film, in an attempt to be somewhat realistic, yet not, goes back and forth between French and English in ways that don’t quite add up. Mirren doesn’t have a believable French accent when speaking French, and the Brit speaking English with something of a French accent doesn’t work either. Mirren is an excellent actress and gives every scene her best, but the part doesn’t call for any kind of acting stretch, and she is given nothing of real interest to do. It’s simply a matter of getting a big star who is an excellent actress who just doesn’t fit the role.
The other intriguing bit of casting is that of Manish Dayal as the young man Hassan. He is perfect for this kind of film. He looks Indian enough (Dayal was born and raised in the US, and has parents from India) but his looks are close enough to the all-American look for him to be acceptable to Western eyes as a romantic lead. He can be boyish and nice-looking, and then can be fitted with a modern haircut and more facial hair for his “good-looking” scenes. Dayal (Law and Order: SVU, Switched at Birth and 90210) is a talented enough actor to make us believe in him and his love of cuisine. But it makes one wonder if this kind of film could have supported—and made us believe in—a young Indian man who looked a bit more like the father in the film. Of course it can be argued that since Dayal’s parents were Indian, he is Indian. True enough. But it is his good fortune that he looks Western enough to be cast as the lead and romantic lead in a film like this.
There are a few moments of something close to harsh reality. The early scenes in India set up the film’s plot, and have a generic sense of violence. The latter scenes of racism and xenophobia have a stronger edge to them, and begin to suggest a couple of deeper themes at work. But then the film turns around, slaps the bad guys on the wrist, sends them away, and uses the events to begin the great turnaround of emotion and activity that we can all feel good about.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is neither like the traditional French cuisine or the hot and spicy Indian food that are featured so strongly in the film. It’s more like all-American comfort food, with perhaps one slightly different spice that makes things a little different and interesting. What’s new and different is the combination of staid French and passionate Indian food, perspectives and lifestyles. Yet even that sounds more interesting than the film manages to be. What The Hundred-Foot Journey is is a professionally produced and directed film with one miscast lead and a happy, affirming story that could only challenge the most mean-spirited among us. It can be fun at times, and it makes a great date movie. But there is nothing new or special about it in any way. That is its strength and why it’s a fun ride for so many. If you go in with no expectations except having your perspectives confirmed, you’ll enjoy it.