“The Hundred-Foot Journey” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG, 2:02, three stars out of four.
Haveli Restaurant is just a quarter-mile east of Star Cinema on Highway PD. Swagat is about a mile north of Point on High Point Road. Maharana Indian Restaurant is a couple of miles southwest of Eastgate, near East Towne Mall. And Taste of India is about three miles east of Sundance Cinemas on Monroe Street.
Because, let’s face it. As much as you want to know how good “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is, the news you can really use is where to get good Indian food afterwards.
There is softcore food porn and there is hardcore food porn, and Lasse Hallstrom’s light drama is of the sort that would be banned in several Southern states. The camera lingers over luscious images of both French and Indian cooking, sometimes in slow motion — if you have an egg-beating fetish, you will likely have to be escorted from the theater.
In between the hunger pangs, “Journey” is a gentle and warm-hearted tale of two cultures clashing, and then blending. Yet another slice of comfort food masquerading as fine arthouse dining from Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”), the promotional materials have made much of the fact that both Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg serve as producers on the film. But this is Hallstrom’s kitchen.
When their family restaurant in Mumbai is destroyed by fire, Papa (Om Puri) brings his family — including his son and celebrated chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) to a small village in the south of France. They open a new restaurant, Maison Mumbai, and wait for the customers to come pouring in for spicy curry and tandoori goat.
The only problem is that Maison Mumbai is located directly across the street from the town’s only other restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur. Run by the widow of its chef, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the restaurant specializes in classic French cuisine — classic as in recipes that have not just been in the family for generations, but centuries. A recurring motif in the movie is the idea of tradition and memories living on through cuisine — the entire film could be based on that scene in “Ratatouille” where Anton Ego tries the ratatouille.
The imperious Madame Mallory doesn’t take too kindly to the loud raga beats or the smell of coriander wafting over from across the road, and engages in a tight-lipped war of attrition to run the Maison Mumbai out of business. The gravel-voiced Papa is more than a match for her, and the best part of the film is their battle of wills, as they try and bend local officials to do their bidding, or buy up all the stock at the local market before the other gets there. Mallory’s haughty disdain for her new Indian neighbors at first smacks a little of racism, but she starts to mellow, especially when some out-and-out racists spray “France for French” on the wall of the Maison Mumbai. The sight of the elegant woman out in the rain, scrubbing the graffiti off the wall, is poignant, and Mirren is typically effective at showing the vulnerability hidden beneath an imperious exterior.
While the restaurant owners have locked horns (Puri and Mirren are a lot of fun as sparring partners), Hassan starts a tentative courtship with Mallory’s sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who recognizes his talent and smuggles him old French cookbooks to study. Eventually, even Madame Mallory can’t ignore his skill in the kitchen, and offers to apprentice him at her restaurant, teaching him the discipline of French cooking to marry with the passion of Indian cooking.
Another movie might set this up as a false choice, but to its credit “The Hundred-Foot Journey” finds value in both kinds of cooking and both ways of living. Unfortunately, it sort of betrays this open-minded view in the third act, when Hassan is hired away to work at a trendy restaurant in Paris. He dons a welder’s mask and enters into the world of molecular gastronomy, which the movie treats as something akin to witchcraft. How refreshing it would have been for Hassan (and the movie) to find value, and feeling, in these new ways of cooking as well as they old.
More fatally, the Paris section of the film takes us away from the village, which is where the real action and charm of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” lies. It’s no spoiler to hint that Hassan may eventually get back to the little village for a sentimental finale — the only question is why he ever left in the first place.