The plot of The Hundred-Foot Journey is fairly straightforward. Displaced from his home in India and finding England too cold, ‘Papa’ Kadam (Om Puri) takes his family on an odyssey across Europe. An auto accident lands them in southwest France in the unbelievably picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val where he is enamored with the architecture of a derelict château and resolves it to be the site of his new restaurant, Maison Mumbai.
The problem is that it is right across the road (just 100 feet) from the distinguished restaurant Le Saule Pleureur, owned by the formidable Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). A widow who, we learn, runs her restaurant solely for a coveted second Michelin star. Her protests against the interloper lead to an escalating (but comical) war between the establishments.
Meanwhile, Kadam’s son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who is also Maison Mumbai’s gifted chef, and Madame Mallory’s bewitchingly beautiful sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) pursue a different path. After a chance encounter in the woods they become romantically attracted, which is perhaps what induces Hassan to try to smooth relationships with M. Mallory by taking her some of his cooking. Her public response is to tip it in the trash can. But she won’t admit her private response after just one taste is an organoleptic orgasm.
The war culminates in M. Mallory’s chef attempting to burn down Maison Mumbai, an event even she considers too much. He is fired and and Hassan hired as his replacement. In his first year he earns the restaurant its second Michelin star, an event that precipitates offers from all over France. He moves to a modernist temple (clearly a play on El Bulli) in Paris where he gains stardom, sex-symbol status, and a third Michelin star. The problem is that he is desperately unhappy On the night of the pending call from Michelin announcing his third star he takes the TGV back to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val to see Marguerite. At a surprise meal at Le Saule Pleureur they announce that Hassan is returning as chef with Marguerite as his “business partner”. The family and M. Mallory are thrilled and she and ‘Papa’ even take a small dance together.
This movie is funny right from the get-go using the disconnect between Indian and rural French cultures and the richly drawn characters. Om Puri, a distinguished actor in both Indian and Western films, gets an early laugh from his character’s proclivity towards cheapness and bargaining every price down to the bone. This lands the family in their house in England – right at the end of a runway at Heathrow airport. We witness him trying to work in the yard while a jet aircraft lands overhead, its rivets almost countable. Later, his reaction to M. Mallory attempting to hire Hassan away is not fatherly horror, but how much can he get him as a monthly paycheck.
Helen Mirren may get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, based on her convincing depiction of a reserved French matriarch. The scenes between her and Om Puri are memorable. Puri himself may be a Best Supporting Actor nominee as well. It depends if the Academy voters regard his role as big enough.Mirren’s scenes beseeching the inveighed-on but greedy town mayor (Michael Blanc) are also good.
There are also good lines for Hassan’s brother Mansur (Amit Shah). On learning that his brother has moved to a Paris restaurant where he cooks with hay he asks “Is he cooking for horses?”.
The film isn’t free of criticism. Producer Steven Spielberg uses all his tricks as master of the blockbuster to make it a tear-jerker, especially Linus Sandgren’s manipulative camera. It is all soft filters and contrived composition. Even the choice of location is designed to put the Garden of Eden on the horticultural B-list. The pace also slows down after the two sides make up and the humor evaporates.
Spielberg knew that this film would be nothing without humor that pivoted off the cultural differences. But the film (and maybe this is a byproduct of Richard Morais’ book) lacks the acute observational sensibility that characterized Peter Mayle’s “A Year In Provence” which led to so many copycat volumes (this book being one). It is also derivative in making Papa an Indian re-creation of Gus Portokalos, the Greek patriarch who believed that the Greeks invented everything, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Nonetheless, this is a funny date movie that will likely be a mini-blockbuster in its own right. Indeed, it has Oprah Winfrey pulling for it as one of Spielberg’s fellow producers to help ensure that. It may cause a revival in interest in French food in the U.S. (which has been in a decline for 20 years) and Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val should get prepared to be mobbed.
The Hundred-Foot Journey starts Friday August 8th at area theaters.