French and Indian restaurants stage a culinary showdown in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” but the result is neither rich nor spicy. This rom-com-drama is merely amiable, even when the two central couples pretend to be bristlingly incompatible.
The movie is essentially a return to “Chocolat,” director Lasse Hallstrom’s 2000 tale of a provincial French town that reacts badly to the arrival of deliciousness. In that story, the intrusion was at least French; in this one, it’s Indian.
The newcomers are led by Papa (veteran Indian actor Om Puri), who decides to stay in the immaculately picturesque village where his family van breaks down. He has five children, but only one matters to the story: Hassan (Manish Dayal), a kitchen savant.
The story is driven by three conflicts, but two are easily resolved and the third is never really explained.
Papa and Hassan’s new eatery sits 100 feet across a rural road from a Michelin-starred landmark run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). She attempts to sabotage the competition, but finds Papa every bit as bull-headed as she is. Indeed, the two widowed restaurateurs seem a natural match.
The very first person the family meets, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), is a stock character in movies about foreigners in the South of France: the young beauty who travels exclusively by bicycle and always wears dresses. (Put a pair of Levis on Marguerite and she’d curdle like overheated hollandaise.) She and Hassan are clearly meant to mate, but Marguerite is an aspiring chef who’s jealous of his culinary genius.
The other antagonism is more substantial, which may be why the filmmakers sidestep it. The Indian family was driven from Mumbai by a mob that burned down its restaurant, killing Papa’s wife and the kids’ mother. But why? The source novel (by Richard C. Morais) acknowledges that Papa and his brood are Muslim, something the movie never mentions. (The only hints are that Hindus tend not to be named “Hassan,” or to cook veal and beef.)
The script is by Stephen Knight, whose work is usually tougher and tighter. Next to his recent directing debut, “Locke,” this movie looks flabby. Perhaps seeking to retain something of the book’s rhythm, Knight and Hallstrom let a very simple story meander for two hours and include episodes that serve no dramatic purpose. Maybe they hoped the exuberant A.R. Rahman score would keep things moving.
Dayal is bland and Le Bon not much zestier, although both can reasonably blame underwritten parts. Puri and Mirren are lively and well-matched, even if the British actress’s French accent is distracting. As the town’s gourmet mayor, Michel Blanc is a big pleasure in a small role.
But the real stars, of course, are the food and the scenery, both bathed in celestial light. “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is basically a promo reel for small-town France and Gallo-Indian food fusion. Anyone who requires a more substantial meal should eat before heading to the theater.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements, some strong violence, language and brief sensuality. In English and bits of unsubtitled French and Hindi. 122 minutes.