There was a battle of wills at the advance screening of the culture-clash gourmet chef yarn The Hundred-Foot Journey that mirrored what was unfolding onscreen quite uncannily. On the left, a couple of non-media latecomers who had the temerity to sit in the press row, even after yours truly advised them they were not allowed to sit there. On the right, myself and a fellow reviewer, the latter of whom initially said I was too harsh on the young couple.
“The movie’s already started,” my colleague pointed out, his way of conveying it didn’t much matter at this juncture of the evening. Sure enough, the driven duo stood around the front of the theater, resolutely refusing to sit on the front row, and then stealthily slunk back into the two seats I had expressly indicated were off limits to them. By this point, I decided to bite the bullet and try to concentrate on Lasse Hallström’s postcard-pretty adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ novel about an gastronomy prodigy from India who emigrates to France with a family as boisterous and cartoonish as the ones in Bollywood movies, only those productions have nifty musical numbers to fall back on.
Hassan Haji (doe-eyed Manish Dayal), you see, has a privileged palate, a gift that served him well at the restaurant run by his business-savvy dad (veteran actor Om Puri), at least until rioters caught up in the country’s political unrest set the place on fire, claiming the life of a loved one. It’s a moment that should carry some dramatic weight, but it’s staged with such tasteful remoteness that it barely registers. After all, in this Oprah Winfrey-produced film one musn’t upset the target audience with content that would be the slightest bit disturbing.
The brakes on the Hajis’ van fail while they’re driving through the south of France, landing them in the picturesque town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. A young woman comes to their aid, treating them to a simple yet scrumptious dinner at her house. It doesn’t take long for Papa to sniff around for available property and settle on the run-down location across the road from a well-regarded, Michelin-starred restaurant run with an iron glove by Madame Mallory (a stiff-upper-lipped Helen Mirren, effortlessly nailing the French accent), where Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the Good Samaritan who helped Hassan and his clan, works and is training to become a chef.
The petty quarrel that ensues between Hassan’s dad and Madame Mallory is toothless middlebrow fare. “Fast food, something ethnic,” scoffs Mallory when asked what the Hajis will be serving in the restaurant they aim to open across from hers. If the jaw-droppingly bigoted attitude leaves a bad taste in your mouth, Hallström, working from a brain-dead screenplay by Steven Knight, can’t be bothered by your misgivings. He thinks Mallory’s racism is just darling. He also glosses over Hassan’s willingness to assimilate at the expense of his own cultural background.
Equally disposable is the wan romance, fueled by competitive rivalry, that blossoms between Hassan and Marguerite like an unwelcome front-yard weed. This all seemed to suit our disruptive audience members just fine. They pointed to the screen and giggled at all the appropriate laugh lines while pawing at each other in gag-inducing PDAs. Since the characters predominantly speak in sound bites – as opposed to sentences real people might utter in real life – this was the perfect movie outing for the young lovebirds; they could glance back periodically and never lose the narrative thread, not even when the young woman kept getting up from her seat, ostensibly to use the little girls’ room. Had this been a halfway watchable film, I might have been more upset.
Hallstrom’s m.o. throughout The Hundred-Foot Journey is to prioritize impeccable good taste over dramatic fireworks and milk all that inelegant head-butting between Papa and Madame Mallory for lowest-common-denominator laughs. Mirren’s best scene comes at the halfway point, when she retaliates from Papa’s payback maneuvers by humiliating Hassan in front of her staff. It’s a potent scene, but it also underscores how inert the rest of this flavorless concoction is. How can a movie featuring so many (lovingly photographed) spicy dishes be this vanilla?
The film’s Swedish director (My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules) has traveled down this road before, with much brighter results, in the 2000 romantic comedy Chocolat, also set in a provincial French town, also dealing with someone with culinary prowess, this time a chocolatier played by Juliette Binoche. That movie was no masterpiece, but it didn’t wheel out a culture’s worst stereotypes and watched as they squared off against another culture’s worst stereotypes, all set to an intrusive, all-to-wall score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) that commits the musical equivalent of this aesthetic misstep.
The Hundred-Foot Journey has the misfortune of coming on the heels of Jon Favreau’s Chef, a gently unassuming foodie film that paid homage to fine dining without resorting to by-the-numbers, soft-focus food porn the way Hallstrom does here. There’s a hint of a better film here, especially later in the game, when it hints at a darker direction Hassan’s arc could have gone in before settling to tie everything up in a photogenic bow.
As for the couple who kept interrupting me and my colleague throughout the film, they left the second the credits started rolling, blissfully unaware of the havoc they wreaked. They may have gotten what they were looking for, but they and this underachieving cooking infomercial left me starving for a decent movie experience. Cancel your reservations to this rancid soufflé. It suffers from a terminal case of Babette’s Feast envy.