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'Journey' has exotic foods, bland comedy (w/video)

  • Francois Duhamel / Dreamworks
    In "The Hundred-Foot Journey," Hassan (Manish Dayal), center) serves his father (Om Puri) Beef Bourguinon á la Hassan, a classic French dish with an Indian twist, as Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) explains its significance to French chefs.

With its picture-postcard setting and mouthwatering Indian and French delicacies, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a movie designed to comfort. Stimulating taste buds and little else, Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film picks up where his 2000 hit Chocolat left off, in terms of the affectionate shaming of provincial Gallic villagers.

Starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri as rival restaurateurs in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France, the film tracks a tension-free lesson in cultural exchange that culminates, predictably, in romance. Fans of the source best-seller and seekers of non-challenging counterprogramming to summer’s genre fare will savor the offering. But colorful locales and exotic spices can’t hide its essential blandness.

The comic drama follows a Mumbai family’s move to France, where a conveniently available run-down mansion/restaurant gives them the chance to resurrect the business they lost back home in devastating circumstances. Papa (Puri), a father of five and an unstoppable force who still communes with his deceased wife, soon butts heads with Mirren’s Madame Mallory, who runs the elegant eatery directly across the road. Hers is a bastion of classical French cuisine and the proud bearer of a Michelin star. Madame wants a second one. She’s so downright spiteful that the eventual melting of her heart is a given.

The thawing begins halfway through the movie, with an act of xenophobic violence against the Indian family that proves only a minor blip for the characters, even for Papa’s injured son Hassan (Manish Dayal). A gifted cook who’s fascinated with French culinary tradition, he falls for Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame’s sous-chef, as they explore the bounty of the farmers’ market and the local terrain. Their story’s trajectory is as unsurprising as most everything else in the fairy-tale-tinged film, but Le Bon brings a nice touch of passive-aggressive competitiveness to her role when Hassan’s career takes off.

Screenwriter Steven Knight’s adaptation of the foodie-friendly novel by Richard C. Morais resolves conflicts quickly and places morsels of platitude about the “flavors of life” in characters’ mouths. For anyone who didn’t see Ratatouille, there are helpful reminders that “food is memories.”

But the main course is the dance between Madame Mallory and Papa, however transparent the clash between her carefully composed plates and his bold flavors. Whether they’re filing ridiculous complaints about each other with the unflappable mayor (Michel Blanc), arguing over the proper presentation of ingredients or sharing a cafe table, Mirren and Puri bring an effortless command to their roles.


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