One of the first things to flash on the screen during The Hundred-Foot Journey is a title card reading: Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. You might see that as informational, I’d look at it as a warning.
You want warmth? This flick’s got it. You want a feel-good story? Hundred-Foot’s just the ticket. You want pretty pictures and lovely people and happiness by the bucket? This Lasse Hallström-directed version of Richard C. Morais’ novel adapted by Steven Knight is exactly what the doctor ordered—it’s like someone sprinkled Paxil over your popcorn.
Or am I just a bitch? I don’t mean to be, really. I was actually entertained by this movie; partly because Helen Mirren’s in it and I love her, partly because I’m not immune to pretty pictures, and partly because—rumors to the contrary—I am only human and can be manipulated as easily as anyone.
It starts out fairly bleak. The Haji family runs a popular restaurant in Mumbai. But one night a local uprising causes the death of Mrs. Haji and destroys their business. The father and children (including Hassan, who learned to cook from his mother) escape to England and try to make a culinary go of it in Old Blighty. That doesn’t work, so Papa packs them up in a run-down van and crosses the Channel into France for a fresh start. This part of the movie is very dour, with the colors all washed out blues and grays with seemingly no uplift in sight.
When they wind up on the Continent, things change considerably. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren suddenly goes mad with a cartoony, painterly palette. It’s bronze-gold sunlight and azure blue horizons with hunter green forests and candy apple-red lipstick. The family’s van breaks down on the outskirts of a village in the French Alps that looks so perfect and so clean and so beautiful you’d swear you’re not in Europe, but in Euro Disney. And here Hallström and company go to work.
The Haji family buys a property in the town that they convert into an Indian restaurant, the Maison Mumbai—the marquee of which has one letter that continually sputters on and off. It’d be cute, if it weren’t so damned calculated to be cute.
Things Start Sizzlin’
But that’s not the Haji’s problem, ‘cause look out, here comes the aloof and stern Helen Mirren. You see, she runs a 1 Michelin-starred restaurant right across the street and is appalled that such loud, garish foreigners would dare bespoil the lovely French countryside … with spices!
But don’t hate Helen because she’s got problems, too. Having devoted her life to this restaurant, and trying everything in her power to get a second Michelin star, it turns out she’s hollow inside, hollow I tell you! And the sterile serenity of her restaurant suddenly seems cold and brittle compared to the festival of love, laughter, and colorful costumes happening just across the way.
Meanwhile, back to Hassan. A chef with innate talent, he is beginning to explore French cuisine, its techniques and history. He’s just a boy with a dream to meld two cultures on one plate. Or, possibly, he just wants to get into Marguerite’s pants.
Did I mention Marguerite? She’s a local studying to be a chef at Helen’s joint, but one look at the boy from across the road and she can’t help cavorting with the enemy. That’s okay, since he can’t stay away from her either. In what has to be a first in cinema history, the two fall in love over béchamel sauce. She tells him he can’t be a serious cook without learning how to make it—soon he’s stirring all-purpose flour into hot butter and adding warmed cream, and then serves it to her at a picnic on a white table cloth on a golden afternoon in a green meadow on a lush mountain side high in the French Alps. She licks the spoon, he widens his eyes, she widens hers, and you know that, come what may, they’ll be together forever.
You also know that because Manish Dayal, who plays Hassan, and Charlotte Le Bon, as Marguerite, are the two prettiest people you’ve ever seen in your life and it would be a cruel waste to pair them up with lesser mortals. Honestly, Dayal and Le Bon are like stuffed plush toys you’d buy at a high-end gift shop.
Even with a movie photographed to look (as my date said) like a Thomas Kincaid painting and all the food seemingly made by wand-waving magic elves and the preparation and serving of the meals approaching the level of food pornography, Dayal and Le Bon are a breathtakingly beautiful couple—It’s like Pixar has started making human beings.
Garam Masala + Velouté = Success
Dame Helen finally has a change of heart about the Hajis and brings Hassan into her kitchen to give him a formal culinary education. Here again we find ourselves in some weird cartoon world where not one chef’s apron has a stain, nobody sweats or swears, and work spaces are immaculately clean, even during dining rush!
Pretty soon Hassan is stirring his mother’s garam masala into Helen’s velouté, and all of France falls to their epicurean knees.
Helen gets her second star and Hassan is whisked off to the big city where he becomes chef de cuisine at an unbelievably high-toned Paris eatery. And you know what that means—he starts using product in his hair. (It is the style capital of the world, after all.) But he’s a sad Hassan, too, because he’s left behind his family, Helen, Marguerite, and his mother’s spices. He may be the darling of the culinary world, but he’s hollow inside, hollow I tell you! and starts nipping at the cooking sherry and wandering the rainy streets of gay Pareé all alone.
Will Hassan ever find happiness again?
Will pasta turn to mush if boiled too long?
Ooh, there’s bitchy Ted, again. Never mind my snark. There’s a lot to enjoy in The Hundred-Foot Journey, and if this kind of movie sounds tasty to you, it could be just your dish.
Ted Hoover is a writer and critic based in Pittsburgh.