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'The Hundred-Foot Journey' softens what could've been a meatier story

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The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Every once in a while, there is a movie that will truly surprise you. Not because it is flashy or merely because the clever plot twists and shocking turns are unexpected, but because something about the way in which the final product is delivered is actually different than what you go into it expecting. When it's so different that you find yourself in awe of the fact that the filmmakers pulled off such a delightful surprise, you are left feeling that a sense of wonder can still exist in the movies. And that is a very good feeling.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is not a movie that pulls off this feat. A movie that instantly springs to mind is the painfully overlooked 2013 drama How I Live Now. The way in which that movie knowingly, thoughtfully, and very intricately does an about-face about twenty minutes into its run time and becomes something wholly unexpected is nothing short of brilliant. That, combined with forceful yet tender, rhythmic storytelling that never lets up, and powerful performances by all the young actors in the film—most especially its fantastic lead, Saoirse Ronan—made How I Live Now one of the best films to come out that year: powerful, engaging, surprising, beautiful, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, jarring, and inspiring.

When a film can cross-cut genres in that way, when it can be something apart from just any particular one thing, that is an opportunity for when real art can be achieved. That is not to say that a movie which wholeheartedly makes its representational stamp upon a genre is not able to be high art. Sometimes honest-to-goodness storytelling of a drama, a romance, a thriller, etc. can be a sort of comfort, and it does not mean that because a tale is straightforward or linear that it is not well told or could not be expertly crafted.

However, often it can be the case, where a movie falls into its class system of whichever genre to which it belongs, and it never makes the extra effort to achieve excellence or tell anything new about its subject matter, which more often than not is probably something that has been told a thousand times previous (or more). And it simply melds into the Pollock painting hodgepodge of the many gone before it, never really making any mark on the world or lasting impression upon the hearts and minds of the people who view it.

Although the impression thus far painted from the above description may leave dear readers thinking that The Hundred-Foot Journey is a blasé waste of time, that is not (really) the case. Based on the eponymously named Richard C. Morais novel, if the movie is taken simply for what it is—i.e. a rather simple story about restaurant owners and young love (as well as love in later years) and a droopy, cute Indian guy making his way in the world—then it really can be the buttery bread of the summer: enjoyable and flighty, but no real meat and potatoes of a film (could there be anymore food metaphors used?).

Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal, who dashingly looks a bit like an Indian Tom Cruise) narrates the beginning of our tale, as he speaks to an immigration officer at London Heathrow airport, heading for continental Europe with his family to seek a better life. Having lost the mother of the family in a fire and having already been exiled from India, they have taken up residence in the UK for a year. Hassan's father, known throughout the film only as Papa (Om Puri), has a vision in his mind for his family, that they'll settle somewhere in France or Italy and thrive off the land. Their brakes give out along the road through the picturesque French countryside, and they are aided by a beautiful young girl named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, or who could at certain angles be mistaken for Winona Ryder circa Heathers), who gives them a place to stay the night at her humble abode in her quaint village and feeds them delectable French food that warms their hearts as well as their tummies.

Already you can tell what kind of movie this is. It makes you feel good; it attempts to satiate you as a viewer, in the way one would be sated after the blessing of a large, fulfilling meal. And, frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. The story takes us to a pristine village, where the family Kadam take up residence, and each member takes on various responsibilities in running the restaurant they open. Hassan is the gifted cook, and before long, he raises the stakes by piquing the interest of the family's main rival, their neighbor across the street, Madame Mallory (Dame Helen Mirren), whose long established restaurant serving the finest in French cuisine is a mere one hundred feet away.

Mallory makes it her mission to drive the Indians from her town, but her efforts prove unsuccessful. Eventually the story becomes about how people with different backgrounds and values learn to coexist, and how Hassan matures into a master chef.

It all gets a little trite over time, and patience can wear thin as the overall picture increasingly becomes less specific and more unintentionally convoluted. Directed by Lasse Hallström—who brought to the screen such Nicholas Sparks schmaltz as Dear John and Safe Haven—there are ample opportunities where the film could have swayed into bulkier territory, but it chooses to gloss over certain subject matter like racism, existential angst that comes with high success at a certain young age, relationships of love and friendship and family, and the work-life balance, etc. Everything gets touched on, but nowhere are teeth fully sunk into the crux of any one situation or storyline presented, thus the film is left feeling perhaps merely fine, if desperately lacking depth. Where a film like How I Live Now brings so many splendidly varying ingredients to a feast at an intricately placed cinematic table, The Hundred-Foot Journey settles for one lump of narrative sugar, caring not how it affects the storied tea into which it is dissolved.

But it is enjoyable enough, and a pro like Mirren is always a joy to watch, no matter what role she is playing. The younger stars in the film could benefit from some classical training, but they're not altogether disagreeable. If you are looking for some light cinematic cuisine this summer, you may enjoy The Hundred-Foot Journey; just know that it may leave the movie gourmand slightly less than full from its not entirely piquant storytelling.

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