The first faces on screen at a recent advance showing of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” belonged to Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who do not appear in the movie itself but are credited among its producers. It’s a bit unusual to be subjected to a promo trying to sell you on a movie you have already committed to seeing, but Mr. Spielberg and Ms. Winfrey clearly could not contain themselves, and took a moment to share their enthusiasm. In the clip (which has also aired on television), Ms. Winfrey, using the trademark falsetto singsong that is her version of conversational italics, tells us how excited she is to present this amazing movie, while Mr. Spielberg uses variations on the word “incredible” at least three times. Noting that “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” based on a popular novel by Richard C. Morais, is about food, Ms. Winfrey asks, “Can I say it’s delicious?”
Who could stop her? But, on the other hand: Who would believe her? There is a lot of soft-core culinary montage in the movie, directed by Lasse Hallstrom with the easygoing blend of elegance and vulgarity that has been his signature at least since “Chocolat.” Eggs are cracked in slow motion and whisked to the sounds of A. R. Rahman’s transnational airport music score. Vegetables are chopped with melodramatic frenzy. Tomatoes fairly burst in the golden sunlight of southern France. Words like “cèpes,” “garam masala,” “écrevisses” and “tandoor” are uttered with almost erotic intensity. And yet “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is likely neither to pique your appetite nor to sate it, leaving you in a dyspeptic limbo, stuffed with false sentiment and forced whimsy and starved for real delight.
Well, maybe not entirely. Helen Mirren and Om Puri are the top-billed players here, and time spent watching them is never entirely wasted. Mr. Puri is Papa Kadam, the patriarch of an Indian family that has been in the restaurant business for generations. He and his four children arrive in a small town in the south of France and set up Maison Mumbai, where the smell of their spices and the sound of their music offends the sensibilities of Madame Mallory (Ms. Mirren), proprietress of the venerable Michelin-starred establishment across the street. The clash of imperious and irascible that these two well-seasoned actors perform is spirited and effortless, but there is nowhere near enough of it.
Instead, there is a culture clash gastro-rom-com spooned out with extreme caution. The main character is Mr. Kadam’s son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a gifted and handsome cook, who supplies early voice-over narration and later exchanges smoldering glances and stolen kisses with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a sous-chef in Madame Mallory’s restaurant. She lends him classic French cookbooks, and he cross-pollinates their tried-and-true recipes with flavors and techniques from back home.
All of which would be fine, even captivating, if “The Hundred-Foot Journey” were really interested in food, culture, ambition, family or any of the other themes it reduces to slogans and clichés. But it is so systematically wrong about all of these things as to seem actively dishonest. Hassan and his family flee Mumbai in the wake of political violence described as following from “some election or other.” French xenophobia receives similarly cursory, abstract treatment. There are some racist hooligans in the village, and one in Madame Mallory’s kitchen, which is plausible enough.
Madame’s culinary chauvinism, in contrast, seems as dated and stereotypical as the frog’s legs and escargots on her menu, and the film’s assumptions about gender and cooking. Women here can nurture and spot talented chefs, but that status is implicitly reserved for men.
The French are fussy and snobbish, the Indians clannish and boisterous, and the movie is in such a hurry to avoid real conflict that it also avoids suspense, drama and emotional impact. Mr. Dayal, in spite of his sensitive, brooding good looks, has a way of disappearing on screen, and no real heat develops between him and Ms. Le Bon. The plot lurches and meanders, stapling tepid scenes of comedy to flimsy bits of melodrama with musical passages and repetitive long shots of the pretty countryside. Mr. Hallstrom seems to lack either the ability or the desire to flesh out secondary characters or to attend to the textures of local life. You have caught more evocative glimpses of France and Mumbai in television commercials.
If the food were any good, such lapses might be more tolerable. But despite a late, knowing excursion to Paris and the trendy world of molecular gastronomy, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is at its worst when it steps behind the stove. At one point, we are treated to a brief lesson on the five canonical sauces that are the basis of classical French cooking. One of these is hollandaise, which then appears to be prepared with olive oil, which would make it aioli, or perhaps mayonnaise, but not hollandaise as Madame Mallory and her old-school ilk would recognize it. This may sound like a small, pedantic quibble, but a movie that continually proclaims its reverence for the discipline of the kitchen and the glories of tradition should pay attention to such details.
If it did, it might find a place alongside “Ratatouille,” “Babette’s Feast” and other touchstones of foodie cinema. But this film is not in love with food; it is commercially invested in the idea that food is something people think they love. It is an empty pastry shell, an artificially sweetened meringue, with no substance or conviction. Early in the film, Hassan samples a sea urchin. “It tastes like life,” his mother tells him. Maybe so, but the dominant flavor of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is pure banality.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). A few hints that eating is a sensual activity connected with other sensual activities.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; written by Steven Knight, based on the novel by Richard C. Morais; director of photography, Linus Sandgren; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by A. R. Rahman; production design by David Gropman; costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud; produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake; released by DreamWorks Pictures and Participant Media. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
WITH: Helen Mirren (Madame Mallory), Om Puri (Papa), Manish Dayal (Hassan Kadam), Charlotte Le Bon (Marguerite), Amit Shah (Mansur Kadam), Farzana Dua Elahe (Mahira Kadam), Dillon Mitra (Mukhtar Kadam), Aria Pandya (Aisha Kadam) and Michel Blanc (Mayor).