Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

"The Hundred-Foot Journey"   *** (out of ****)

Food. I guess I never really thought about the importance and the effects a great meal can have on someone. It is one of the things I thought about while watching Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hundred-Foot Journey" (2014).

I would say I have only had a handful of great meals in my life. Most of those meals were cooked by my grandmother. Her sisters, our cousins and friends would all admit what a great cook my grandmother was. She would prepare traditional Hungarian dishes like toltott kaposzta (stuffed cabbage), csirke paprikas (chicken paprikash) and gulyasleves (goulash soup) for our family every Sunday. It was the one day of the week we could all get together. No one had to go to work, my sisters and I didn't have school. We could all just get together and eat a good meal. My grandmother passed away a few years ago and now I don't get to eat the cuisine of "my people". There aren't any Hungarian restaurants in the state of Illinois. And so, all I have are my memories of those delicious meals my grandmother would make and the time my family would spend together eating them.

One of the characters in "The Hundred-Foot Journey" says "food is memories". Certain foods make us remember certain people or moments in our life. I had never really given it much thought, but, I would agree. That is true. Food is a big part of our lives. We seek new hot-spot restaurants, in the hopes of finding a good meal. We prepare our own meals at home, to make sure we are eating fresh ingredients. We go on diets. We give into temptation and have a rich dessert. Food is all around us. And some of our best memories include sharing a meal with special people in our lives.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is partially about this and makes minor attempts at addressing larger cultural issues concerning food. Food is not just about having a great meal, food also represents tradition and culture.

Helen Mirren, in a Golden Globe nominated performance, stars as Madame Mallory, owner of a well respected French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur. Madame Mallory takes great pride in her restaurant and the quality of food which is served there, which has received one Michelin star, from the famed guide book. It is a dream of Madame Mallory to one day receive another star.

Enter the Kadam family from Mumbai. They have decided to open an Indian restaurant in the same small French village as Le Saule Pleureur, infact, the Kadam's restaurant would be across the street from it, hundred feet away.

There is some disagreement among the Kadams however. the father (Om Puri) is in favor of the idea, but, one of his son's, Mansur (Amit Shah) believes it would be a bad idea. There are no Indian restaurants in this small town. The people don't don't like Indian food. They only like their own food. But the father believes, they may think they don't like Indian food but they have never tried it. They don't know what it is and they have never tasted Hassan (Manish Dayal), the second oldest son's cooking.

With the two restaurants so close to each other a mini war breaks out as they complete for customers and soon a cultural divide begins. Some of the residents of this French town don't want the Kadam's living there or their restaurant. The Kadam's aren't French! They don't make French food and if they did it probably wouldn't be better than the food at Le Saule Pleureur. The residents and even some of the chefs in Madame Mallory's kitchen don't like the Kadam's because they are Indian and seen as lower class. The Kadam's food, their music, their culture, lacks the refinement of the French.

The movie directed by Lasse Hallstrom, written by Steven Knight, adapted from a novel by Richard C. Morais of the same title, works best when it deals with this cultural divide and tries to become something more than a "food movie".

Knight is a very good British screenwriter and director himself. Last year he wrote and directed "Locke" (2014), one of the best movies of the year, starring Tom Hardy. He also wrote "Eastern Promises" (2007), the David Cronenberg film and the Stephen Frears thriller "Dirty Pretty Things" (2003), which also dealt with social class.

Hallstrom, a Swedish filmmaker, might be best known in this country for the Academy Award nominated "Chocolat" (2000) which also dealt with food and explored larger social issues, and "The Cider House Rules" (1999) for which he was nominated for a best director Academy Award.

Addressing the cultural issues helps the movie become more than a simple "feel good" romance. But, the movie doesn't develop this theme closely enough. It tries to balance larger issues with cooking scenes. This prevents "The Hundred-Foot Journey" from becoming a truly exceptional movie. Oddly enough what "The Hundred-Foot Journey" needed was more cooking scenes, more scenes dealing with cultural divide and fewer scenes dealing with romance, as Hassan has fallen in love with a chef at Le Saule Pleureur, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).

Still there is a lot to enjoy while watching "The Hundred-Foot Journey". You can always rely on Helen Mirren to deliver a good performance. Her character starts off strong and then slowly fades into the background. There is quite an interesting character lurking there that sadly isn't given enough time to be fully developed, but, when Mirren is on-screen she is a delight to watch.

The locations are nice to look at, the movie has a good sense of humor as it deals with culture clash, I like the attempts at a larger social theme, I thought Charlotte Le Bon delivers a good performance as well. I am not familiar with her work but she has the makings of a star. She seems well suited for romantic comedies. She has an appealing screen presence.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is a nice return for Hallstrom, who seems to have gotten stuck directing Nicholas Spark adaptations such as "Dear John" (2010) and "Safe Haven" (2013). His talents exceed that material. "The Hundred-Foot Journey" has something of a bit more substance for him to work with. Hopefully there will be more movies like this in his future instead of "Dear John".