If you were working from a menu of “crowd-pleasing movie conventions,” you could do worse than to mark these boxes: South of France, food, Indian culture, Helen Mirren. Mix with a generous amount of sugar and a brief nod to social concern, and you will have a sure-fire profit machine that goes by the title “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”
To be sure, this film doesn’t stumble into its formula by mere calculation. There’s a great deal of expertise involved: Director Lasse Hallstrom knows how to keep things tidy, and screenwriter Steven Knight has the fine “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” to his credit.
Two of the film’s producers are named Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey; last time I checked, their grasp of what the public wants has left no one in their immediate families noticeably lacking for the basic amenities. Such skill is on the screen, and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is pleasant product, even if it seems as premeditated as a Marvel Comics blockbuster.
The zaniness begins when the Kadam family, newly arrived in France from India, fetch up with car trouble in a small town. Restaurateurs by trade, they seize the opportunity to open an Indian place — in a spot across the street from a celebrated bastion of French haute cuisine, Le Saule Pleureur.
This Michelin-starred legend is run by frosty Madame Mallory (Mirren), whose demeanor is the direct opposite of the earthy Kadam patriarch (Om Puri, a crafty old pro). It’s culinary and cultural war, but will the cooking genius of Papa’s twentysomething son Hassan (Manish Dayal) be denied?
Madame Mallory can recognize the innate talent of a chef by asking a prospect to cook an omelet in her presence. You can already hear the eggs breaking in Hassan’s future — the movie’s like that.
Daval is a good-looking and likable leading man, so it’s too bad he’s given an unpersuasive love story with Madame Mallory’s sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Le Bon, a pretty actress, doesn’t look convinced by the love story, either — her facial expression perpetually conveys the silent question, “Are you sure this is in the script?”
Mirren hits her marks, and the food is of course drooled over. In setting up its culture clash, the film is firmly on the side of the Kadams and their generous portions and against all those snooty-noses across the street. Nobody seems to realize that this airless fairy tale is made with the immaculate authority of La Saule Pleureur, not the freewheeling fun of Maison Mumbai.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” (2 stars)
An immigrant family sets up an Indian restaurant across the road from a bastion of haute cuisine (ruled over by imperious Helen Mirren) in a small town in France. The young Indian chef (Manish Daval) is a genius, but will the humble place survive? This tidy film is so crowd-pleasing it seems as airless as a Marvel blockbuster.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opening: Friday, Aug. 8