For a movie loaded with dialogue about cooking from the heart and not being afraid of spices, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a surprisingly bland slumgullion of food porn and emotional manipulation, filtered through the middlebrow sensibilities of director Lasse Hallström (who seems to be remaking his own “Chocolat,” as though that weren’t bad enough the first time) and the treacly homilies of Oprah Winfrey (who executive produced alongside Steven Spielberg).
It delivers the kind of sentimental sledgehammering I found myself willing to forgive — the presence of Helen Mirren goes a long way in that regard — but once the story goes off on a pointless tangent, the whole soufflé collapses.
Adapted by Steven Knight (“Locke”) from the novel by Richard C. Morais, “Journey” follows budding chef Hassan (Manish Dayal, “90210”) and his family from Mumbai, where their restaurant is burned down by political dissidents, to a cozy small town in France, which Papa (Om Puri) decides is the perfect place to get back into the food service industry.
There’s an issue with the location, location, location that he chooses, however: it’s directly across the street from the swanky, Michelin-starred restaurant run by uptight widow Madame Mallory (Mirren), who looks down her nose at these interlopers with their loud music (by A.R. Rahman, natch) and their turmeric. Papa and Madame start out by going to war — buying out each other’s ingredients at the local markets, and complaining about each other to the well-fed town mayor (Michel Blanc) — but when local resentment against the South Asian newcomers takes a racist tone, the restaurateurs find common ground.
Good thing, since Hassan, gifted at both cooking and tasting, has become smitten with Madame’s sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, “Yves Saint Laurent”), although their romance grows strained when it becomes clear that Madame wants to bring Hassan into her kitchen and under her wing.
So far, so good: Mirren is magnetic, even in the early scenes when she’s basically stuck channeling Dean Wormer from “Animal House,” and she and old pro Puri generate a snappy back-and-forth. Dayal and Le Bon make a magnetic screen couple as well, with his earnestness balancing the mischief in her button eyes. For all the actors, making an impression here is more of a challenge than usual, since this is a film where the produce and the sauces get all the good close-ups.
Despite the movie’s heavy-handed storytelling, I found myself caring about the relationships, and even a little moved when the combative Madame Mallory makes a peace offering to her beleaguered neighbors. But then Hassan becomes a culinary superstar, the third act is devoted to the country mouse’s seduction by the big city (and by molecular gastronomy, which this movie depicts as the devil’s work), and the balance of “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” already at risk, goes completely kablooey.
It’s an emotional jukebox, where Hallström presses a button to elicit joy, tears, sympathy, whatever, and as such, it will no doubt play well for undemanding viewers who just want to see delicious vindaloos, wild mushrooms growing on a French riverbank and the melting of Helen Mirren‘s frozen heart (and apparently, in some scenes, her putty nose).
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”) takes advantage of the kitchen settings, using flames and steam and sizzles to underscore what the characters are saying and feeling. (He does, however, throw in so many lens flares that I thought I was watching a J.J. Abrams joint.) The exteriors are postcard-perfect, in the style of those riverboat-cruise ads that air right before “Downton Abbey.”
“The Hundred-Foot Journey,” in fact, feels like a premium for PBS subscribers, with occasional whiffs of multicultural notions that never obscure a by-the-numbers, feel-good story. If they’re out of tote bags, you could do worse.