2014 has already been quite the cinematic year for foodies, with such scrumptious titles as Chef, The Trip To Italy, and The Green Inferno (what, I don’t judge cultures!), but after indulging in all those treats, I walked into The Hundred-Foot Journey feeling a bit stuffed. Hoping that Indian spices could kick this Oprah/Steven Spielberg production up a few notches, Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ uplifting novel becomes a smidgen too pedestrian when compared to Favreau and Winterbottom’s offerings – even though Hallström’s film boasts a saucy British delicacy in Dame Helen Mirren. An unexpected third act twist does inject a bit of healthy vibrancy into an otherwise overly-produced story of self-discovery, but everything comes together in a rather vanilla mixture once the credits role. Unlike the bursts of flavor highlighted throughout each succulent dish, this journey is rather filling, a bit undercooked, and lacking a signature spin worthy of an almighty Michelin Star.
Following the culinary maturation of a young Indian “cook” named Hassan (Manish Dayal), we quickly learn his only training came from helping his mother in the kitchen of their family restaurant – until its untimely destruction and his mother’s death. After attempting a British life, Hassan’s father (Om Puri) plants them in a small French town where he buys a restaurant worthy of a new start. Unfortunately for Hassan and his family, their new restaurant is directly across from a famed Michelin-rated eatery run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a stern businesswoman disgusted by her curry-cooking new neighbors. What starts as a business rivalry turns into a war, as Hassan vies to prove himself against the team of trained culinary artists working across the street, but the restaurant world may have bigger plans in store for the young chef-in-training.
On a more positive note, Helen Mirren is in proper form playing Madame Mallory, an uptight kitchen dictator hellbent on her own culinary conquest. Starting out as an antagonistic force, her hatred is slowly turned into admiration as the healing power of home cooking proves that age-old French recipes could use a few Indian spices, and it’s a role that fits Mirren so bloody well. Possessing such poise and sophisticated distinction, Mirren uses a bit of her RED training as a diabolical sneak, but as her character recognizes greatness in Hassan, sweet outbursts of respect bring to light a more comforting side that Mirren shows an equally able command of. Then again, discussing what a wonderful actress Helen Mirren is becomes a bit like discussing what makes pizza so freakin’ amazing – it’s just a common fact.
Manish Dayal tests his culinary chops as Hassan, and he confidently looks the part. Commanding his kitchen while following lavish French and Indian recipes, he furiously slices his way through the competition while also attempting to find professional success, love, and pride. While Dayal isn’t to blame, his character falls into a repetitive category of “uplifting” stereotypes who live picturesque, Hollywood-warped realities. I’m all for enlightenment and happy endings, but movies of this nature become predictable and bland after a while, ESPECIALLY when running for about two hours, and The Hundred-Foot Journey is no different. Dashings of molecular cooking and vibrant Indian herbs may kick up the heat of this pick-me-up fodder, but there’s one ingredient that appears to be missing – the wildly sporadic spice of life.
While Steven Knight (Locke/Eastern Promises) has been on quite the hot streak lately, there’s a tragic imbalance between dramatic storytelling and its rich connection to the food being presented. As stated, Hassan never really feels challenged by opposition, but I also felt a lack of appreciation for the beauty in cooking. Sure, there’s a lot of technical showmanship behind the scenes, as a flurry of diced vegetables and whisked sauces fill montages with delectable sights, but the food never takes on a personality of its own. I remember leaving The Trip To Italy with my stomach grumbling, crying out for succulent seafood atop linguini drenched in a white wine sauce, but The Hundred-Foot Journey fails to create a hankering for Samosas or something drenched in Béchamel. The third act does introduce a more scientific approach to cooking, one that’s both dazzling and astoundingly refined, but it becomes too little and too late of a dive into culinary artistry – and something I won’t spoil for you.
Capturing Hassan’s “lengthy” journey are Hallström and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who construct two warring restaurants as if they’re battleships aimed at one another, ready to strike one critical blow. Visually, each restaurant reflects its own unique culture, as Maison Mumbai dances about with bright colors and accentuating details, while Madame Mallory’s hoity-toity establishment wreaks of pretentious egos and drab, tastefully “classy” decor. The scenery is lush and the camerawork is handy, managing to display some eye-candy in the way of foodie fantasies, which ends up helping The Hundred-Foot Journey create a somewhat pleasing scroll of photography for viewers to sample. Who doesn’t love expertly shot scenes around a quaint little French town?
Alas, despite Hallström’s best efforts, The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes a bit inconsequential, doing nothing to advance an exploitable genre or liberate our senses from caged realities and mundane boredom. Hassan’s escape doesn’t pack the same punch as Favreau’s return to indie greatness, or Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s appreciative travels, as characters act more like melodramatic puppets without any realistic connection. It’s a popcorn-popper of the stalest variety, nothing you’d expect from a master chef or even his sous apprentice. I know, it pains me to not recommend a Helen Mirren movie where she yet again dazzles, but despite her best efforts – and those of the old-school Om Puri – The Hundred-Foot Journey fails to enrich our lives on the level Oprah hoped.
The Hundred-Foot Journey feels like a 500 mile walk, traveling down the same "uplifting" road so many heartwarming tales have previously explored.