It’s a tale as old as time: for all intents and purposes, two feuding “families,” live across the street from one another. They share common goals but can’t seem to get around their egos enough to make this realization. A member of one family falls for a member of the other, only to find their relatives austere and unreceptive. Only in this version, the conflict is over tandoori versus truffles not Capulet versus Montague. Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the owner of Le Saule Pleureur, a traditionalist French (i.e. stiff) restaurant in rural France, that pines for their second Michelin star. Imagine her surprise when this seemingly iconic space becomes the home to a new restaurant across the street, Maison Mumbai, owned by the Kadam family. Tempers flare, groceries are stolen, xenophobia abounds. But to complicate things further, one of the Kadam sons, Hassan (Manish Dayal) has aspirations to be a serious chef, of La Saule Pleureur quality.
Despite Madam Mallory’s seemingly impenetrable façade and let’s face it, racist attitude, Hassan is eager to learn the ways of a classically-trained cook. In lovely sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), he finds a friend, a crush, a mentor, and a competitor. And, of course, before long, Hassan succeeds (because The Hundred-Foot Journey is produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey)—cooking Le Saule Pleureur into its second Michelin star and jutting his way into the intensely competitive world of gastronomy. But the question that screenwriter Steven Knight (of Eastern Promises –weirdly enough) continues to return to: is this world of technical proficiency and cold-blooded artistry better?
The film is set up to make you believe, no, it’s not. When Hassan finally does achieve great success there are hints at his depression; for example, a wine glass persistently appears in every scene. For a movie that is by and large, operating on a scale of tropes and stereotypes, this sort of discretion appears out of character. Yet, retrospectively, many moments don’t fully boil: a xenophobic crime that’s hardly ever dealt with, a romance that’s more on paper than in practice, and a bewildering love affair between Madame Mallory and Papa (Om Puri), which, while somewhat wonderful, is not supported by heretofore seen anything.
The most troubling of all is the arguably, thoughtless, understanding of race relations. Thoughtless, here, meaning not all-encompassing, but rather the spaces in which more thought would have been appreciated. While the film gestures that one side of the road is living behind archaic ideals and the other lives freely, director Lasse Hallstrom (of Chocolat) relies on uncomfortable stereotypes to see this through. The very notion that the Kadam family’s life is preferable is presumptuous and diminutive. The fact that they’re loud, covered in sweat stains, and willing to laugh at themselves, equally relies on tokenizing values.
There’s so much to say about movies like this because they’re not great. Great defies words. “Okay,” leaves you rambling. The Hundred-Foot Journey, ultimately, takes on too much. It should end with the achievement of the second Michelin star, but it keeps going. It’s a nice idea to try to point out the correlation of whiteness and frigidity but if you’re not willing to see it all the way through or are not the necessary voice to be heard, than perhaps it is a job better left to someone else. This is not to say that The Hundred-Foot Journey is without merit. The photography of food, the performances of Mirren and Puri, and the little laughs are what keep this film from being a walk-out.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens in Philly theaters today.