Differing cultures can cause any manner of conflict, but one thing we can all agree on is good food. Right? Well, of course not. We live in a country where Philadelphians fight over which cheesesteak is best, so imagine that warring taken to an international level. The Hundred-Foot Journey follows just such a war in the clashing of French and Indian cuisines, which couldn't possibly be more different. French food is decadent yet subtle, while Indian cooking emphasizes an abundance of spicy flavors. Despite the gorgeous pictorial setting and luxuriating food porn that will have your mouth watering, the film is in desperate need of additional seasoning.
Based on the best-selling novel by Richard C. Morais, the high-profile ingredients making up this meal are producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, whose mandate to Chocolat director Lasse Hallstrom must have been to stick with the easy-going, approachable style he's accustomed to. Resembling a Hallmark Greeting Card or something that should be on Oprah's OWN Network, the film is pleasurable enough not to offend, but lacks the spice so many of the story's characters preach about in their cooking.
The story follows a Mumbai family who uphold a vast family tradition as restaurant owners until their place is burned down during a political uprising. They are led by their stubborn Papa (Om Puri), who moves from place-to-place with little success until a fateful auto malfunction strands them in a beautiful French village. Papa, who lost his wife in the fire, believes it's a sign and decides to rebuild their restaurant. There's just one big problem: the building is directly across the street (about a hundred feet!) from Madame Mallory's (Helen Mirren) Michelin-starred establishment that serves classic French cuisine. She doesn't take kindly to the competition; Papa isn't about to back down from her; and soon a war of foodstuffs erupts.
Both sides are downright nasty, so much so that we know there can only be an eventual warming of the heart. Mallory is a lonely woman whose life is her restaurant, and she desperately wants to earn a second Michelin star. Papa believes in the ability of his talented son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), a cooking prodigy who has gained a fondness for French cuisine and Mallory's lovely sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Papa's restaurant, Maison Mumbai, lights up like a festival at night and plays its music too loud; Mallory is friends with the town mayor and uses the power to her advantage. The fighting is comical but lightweight until some of the townspeople, including a few of Mallory's chefs, start getting dangerously racist. When they set fire to Maison Mumbai, Hassan is injured but uses it as motivation to take his career to the next level under Mallory's guidance. She, in turn, has a change of heart about her new neighbors, although she remains a bit reluctant about their food.
Mirren makes the most of a character that is spiteful one moment then cheery the next, with little in the way of nuance in-between. She and Puri have a fun banter that goes a long way, although when romance begins to develop between them it never quite feels right. The opposite is the case between Le Bon and Dayal, who have terrific chemistry throughout. Le Bon in particular brings a perky energy as Marguerite guide's Hassan's first steps into French cuisine, and there's an interesting twist that develops as his talent overtakes hers.
There simply aren't a lot of surprises to be found on this menu. Every emotional beat is one we've seen coming a mile away, but that doesn't mean the story isn't enjoyable. Steven Knight, who has penned some wonderfully complex films (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Locke) in the past serves up one easy culinary anecdote after another, such as "food is memories" which sounds profound but really isn't. What doesn't really work at all is a harsh critique on contemporary, gimmick-laden cooking as Hassan becomes a superstar chef in the big city where visual creativity always trumps passion.
Predictability aside, these are characters we come to care about and their cooking something we wish we could taste for ourselves. If only The Hundred-Foot Journey had a bit more flavor it could have been quite the savory dish.