Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"The Hundred-Foot Journey"

 3.5 / 5 

For such a light and frothy concoction, carefully created to ensure maximum sweetness, The Hundred-Foot Journey contains the slightest hint of an unexpected bitter aftertaste, like a chocolate soufflé made with saccharine: simultaneously rich and delightful, just a bit too airy and intangibly artificial.

The film sets up two restaurants at war with each other, an elegant, Michelin-starred French bastion of haute cuisine that faces a dilapidated old building transformed into the garish Maison Mumbai by a family of Indian food lovers.

That it's altogether sweet and adorable should be no surprise, since The Hundred-Foot Journey (give thanks to a properly punctuated title, at the very least) is directed by Lasse Hallström, who made such crowd-pleasing favorites as My Life as a Dog and Chocolat, to which this film bears no small resemblance.

The undercurrent of bitterness comes from the film's indecision over the short trip in the title, which refers to the hundred feet that separates the two restaurants.  The journey is made by Hassan, the oldest son of "Papa" Kadam (Om Puri), whose family fled India during violent political upheaval.  Hassan, who's played with a wistful soulfulness by American actor Manish Dayal, has a love -- and a talent -- for cooking, instilled in him by his mother, who was killed on the family's last night in Mumbai.  On the road from London (where "the vegetables have no soul"), the family breaks down in the sort of painfully picturesque French village that makes any non-European yearn for a life filled with town squares, rickety stone buildings and slightly bumbling mayors.

Papa decides right then and there that he will open an Indian restaurant in the village, where the family can dedicate themselves to serving aromatic, spicy food to townspeople who have never tried such a thing.  He determines the best location for this restaurant is the vacant building across from Le Saule Pleurer (or, The Weeping Willow -- I looked it up and discovered it's the name of a real Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France).  The restaurant is owned by a frosty, regal woman named Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who scoffs at the idea that there is such thing as worthwhile Indian cuisine, much less refined Indian culture.

After the briefest of struggles, Papa's restaurant finds its footing and -- lo and behold! -- the French villagers like their curry.  Madame Mallory doesn't take kindly to the encroachers, and for a while the film plays as a charming war of cultures.  Then, one of them wins, and The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes a little problematic as it begins to imply that the only way for the Indians to truly succeed is through assimilation.

Momentarily, The Hundred-Foot Journey dabbles in some ugly (but compelling) issues of racial intolerance and violence, but Madame Mallory sees the error of her ways and extends an olive branch to the Kadam family by inviting Hassan to join her kitchen staff.

It's here that The Hundred-Foot Journey turns questionable, because Hassan accepts the offer, and the movie makes it clear that in Western culture, a journey of change and acceptance only works one way: The foreigner has to submit, there is no possibility that the established cultural mindset could be the one in need of change.  Madame Mallory allows for the slightest of spicy flavor to be added to her menu, but only if Hassan first learns how to properly prepare pigeon with truffles and perfect the five basic sauces of French cuisine.

It leads to an odd and disjointed sequence in which Hassan's fame (he helps Madame Mallory raise the profile of her restaurant, which was her motive all along, then moves to Paris) proves to feel empty, which results in everyone finding a way to be happy and content there in their little village.

But only if Madame Mallory is allowed to remain in charge.  Only if the French way of life isn't disrupted too much by these strange foreigners with turbans and embroidered silk robes.

It all plays out with a happy smile, of course.  Everyone lives happily ever after, a revelation that cannot possibly spoil the plot for those inclined to see it.  And The Hundred-Foot Journey most certainly is worth seeing.  It's filled with beautiful French countryside, a sensual fetishizing of carefully created meals, and wonderful performances by both Puri and Mirren -- who in a rarity for Hollywood films, is allowed to show the femininity that lurks beneath her stiff and proper exterior.  Everything glistens with a fine sheen; at first glance, at least, it's a fine and fresh meal.

It's just under-cooked ever so slightly, made less than outstanding by the uncertainty it feels about that central journey.  The Indians are exotic, slightly silly, outsiders who threaten the hard-won simplicity of a homogeneous lifestyle; they aren't really to be taken seriously, in the end, though the film takes care to introduce them as complex, intelligent characters.  Yet they end up as mild caricatures nonetheless, existing mainly to provide that slight bit of spice to 200-year-old recipes that are tried and true.

Yes, the heavily accented people with dark skin can give the dishes -- and life in general -- a little twist, as long as the taste remains assuredly, unwaveringly French and familiar.

Viewed Aug. 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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