If you were working from a menu of “crowd-pleasing movie conventions,” you could do worse than to mark these boxes: the South of France, food, Indian culture, Helen Mirren. Mix with a generous amount of sugar and a brief nod to social concern, and you’ll have a surefire 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 Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, etc.) 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 basic amenities. Such skill is on the screen, and 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 20-something son Hassan (Manish Dayal) be denied? Madame Mallory can recognize a chef’s innate talent 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, a pretty actress who 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. Opens Fri., Aug. 8 at Ark Lodge and other theaters. Rated PG. 122 minutes.