In the age of the formulaic rom-com clinging to a permanent spot on showtime lists, it’s hard to ask any filmmaker to stray too far from success. Going into The Hundred-Foot Journey, it’s obvious there will be a happy ending, a cookie-cutter plot and a sentimental overindulgence; the film (based on a book by Richard C. Morais and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg) doesn’t reinvent the wheel of storytelling or filmmaking. That said, the movie is a satisfying and engaging work of art with both class and subtlety.
The film follows Hassan (Manish Dayal), a young cook brimming with talent, and his immigrant Indian family as they start a restaurant in a rural French village. The catch, their chosen spot is right across the road from a revered French restaurant; a restaurant run by none other than Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren, who plays a pertinacious perfectionist of French cuisine). The inevitable cultural and culinary clashes that follow account for much of the story’s conflict, but there are supplementary romances and colorful side characters that emulsify into the village setting.
A notable success of the film was how it painted character desires visually instead of forcing them into hollow dialogue. Papa’s (Om Puri) passions come through facial expressions, jokes and how he interacts with his family, not just from the words he uses. The expectations of Madam Mallory come from how she holds a piece of limp asparagus or dumps unsatisfying dishes into the trash.
Characterization in the film is built upon solid foundations as well. Poorly made movies like the recently reviewed Obvious Child and the famously terrible The Room shove worthless descriptions like, “You’re mom is the best professor I’ve ever had!” or “Thanks Johnny, you’re my favorite customer!” down the collective throat of the audience; but The Hundred-Foot Journey uses a line like “My son is the best cook in Europe!” to describe Papa more than Hassan. However, the best characterization in the work actually takes life in the deeds and expressions of the movie’s many montages (which had some of the strongest summarized action that I’ve ever seen). The subtle hand of the visuals force the audience to stay engaged in order to fully appreciate the story (which is a good thing).
The movie also has class, which is an endangered feature in Hollywood recently. Violence isn’t over-dramatized. Romance doesn’t turn into the hot and heavy. It’s family-friendly, but the target audience is obviously adults.
Acting and humor are also notable strengths in the film. Om Puri and Helen Mirren (the more mature actors/characters) put in magnificent performances, while the rest of the cast got a more than passing grade. The humor is witty at times and slapstick at others; but nothing stands out as cringe-worthy (with one possible exception) or unnecessary.
My only problems with the film are cosmetic in nature. There aren’t plot holes or unforgivable flaws (although one plot tangent near the end feels a bit squeezed in, which sometimes happens when films stay true to the books they’re based on). First, I didn’t feel comfortable with how language is used; the film would benefit from subtitles instead of switching to English in times where the speakers should be using French. Second, the director uses too many close-up facial shots. Third, I don’t think Marguerite’s (Charlotte Le Bon, Hassan’s love interest) character gets enough developing time; I want to know more about her and her culinary upbringing.
For those who love feel-good movies, The Hundred-Foot Journey will be a gem and for those of us who don’t, it’s sufficiently entertaining.
(This scoring comes from my objective rating of the movie in its category, not from any personal fondness or self-indulgence!)
Photos via: Dreamworks Entertainment