There's a moment in "The Hundred-Foot Journey" -- Lasse Hallstrom's film adaptation of Richard C. Morais's bestselling novel -- when the female ingenue gives the male ingenue a hot tip on how to prepare corn. Better listen carefully: If anyone would know how to prepare corn, it's the creators of "The Hundred-Foot Journey." Zing!
OK, OK, this GMO hybrid of foodie drama, culture-clash comedy, travelogue and romance gently establishes, in middlebrow just-go-with-it fashion, the tone of a fable. The opening scenes in Mumbai pulse with existential zen-of-cooking hooey: Leading character Hassan Kadam fondles a sea urchin and is declared "the boy who knows"; his Mama (Juhi Chawla) instructs him, "You cook to make ghosts ... can you taste them?" and then Mama obligingly expires in an almost comically abrupt fire started by a crowd of election rioters.
Mama's death sends the family on a Search for the Right Place to Be (the film's primary theme) that takes the Kadams to the likes of London and Rotterdam before Papa (Om Puri) gets ghostly approval from Mama to settle in the south of France, in the picture-book village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Papa and the grown Hassan (Manish Dayal) are "eat local" adherents (except for Mama's suitcase of spices, to which they cling), and wherever they will live and cook must have ideal juicy, colorful produce.
But wouldn't you know it? Papa's ghost-approved spot to resettle and open a restaurant is directly across a thin road (let's call the distance between properties a hundred feet) from Le Saule Pleureur, the Michelin-star-awarded haute cuisine pride of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. There, prim and proper Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) rules the roost, with tall, tightly coiled posture and hovering nose. To satisfy the plot, the widowed Madame Mallory goes through the five stages of disbelief: xenophobic disdain, "this means war" stridency, fear, jealousy and, of course, acceptance that Indian food is actually pretty good (and that Papa is rather charming ...).
Meanwhile, Hassan keeps proving his bona fides, first as chef of Papa's Mumbai Maison, then as the French-cuisine pupil of Mallory's pretty sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and, at last, Mallory. Though it's difficult to swallow the characters and situations, and the film certainly drags as it approaches the two-hour mark, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is actually a bit less annoyingly cloy than Hallstrom's "Chocolat."
What makes the fable function shouldn't surprise. The performance ingredients, in and of themselves, are nothing special, but together they help to bind the meal into something hearty enough to tide over the film's target audience. Mirren and Puri's experience and innate charm are invaluable, and the ingenues Dayal and Le Bon prove sexy in their subtleties. Add in ideal locations and some good food-porn sequences, and "The Hundred-Foot Journey" makes for a tasteful enough meal. Just don't blame me if you're hungry in an hour.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality. Two hours, two minutes.