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Monday, September 1 2014

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

"Why change a recipe that is two hundred years old?"

"Because, Madame, maybe two hundred years is long enough."

The Hundred-Foot Journey, Lasse Hallström's new film about an Indian family's struggle to find a new home in a small village in southern France, is  a deceptively lovely ode to food, romance, and the ethos of multicultural blending.

I say deceptive for a few reasons. First, to an American film palate, the movie will have much of the flavor of a small, imported indie film. It boasts only one recognizable star, the ever-reliable Dame Helen Mirren; it takes place entirely in France; it deals in concerns that will be largely foreign to consumers of typical Hollywood fare. Moreover, Journey has the look of a foreign-made film, with luscious, lingering shots of food, wine, a rustic countryside market spilling over with photogenic fruit, veggies and fish, and of course the magic light of that same French countryside.

But don't be deceived; this is entirely a Hollywood movie in sheep's clothing. Director Hallström is no stranger to Tinseltown, his resumé stuffed with titles like What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat, 2000's sleeper hit starring Johnny Depp, Juliete Binoche, and Dame Judi Dench, a film of which Journey is deeply reminiscent. Also, the list of producers include Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, names instantly recognizable as pure, 100% Hollywood.

The movie is also deceptive in the way it plays to expectations, then surpasses them. With a film like Journey, you almost know ahead of time, exactly what you're going to get, especially in regard to the visuals, the lush cinematography, and the quirky characteristics of the secondary characters. And for the first half of the movie, you are correct, or mostly so. There are few surprises, particularly if you have seen the trailers ahead of time. Yet as the plot progresses, surprises mount, small and humble though they might be. It's clear well ahead of time, for example, that there will be antagonism between "Papa", the proud patriarch of the Kadam family, played beautifully by Bollywood actor Om Puri, and the rival restaurateur Madame Mallory, portrayed with a twinkling sort of hauteur by Mirren. But what comes as a surprise is their reconciliation, and eventual warm friendship—not the reconciliation itself, but the way it happens, and why, and the subtleties of how the two characters come to drop their guard and approach each other as man and woman.

The emotional heart of the movie is Papa's son Hasan (American actor Manish Dayal), who first undertakes the "hundred foot journey" of the title, the distance across the road separating the two rival restaurants. The story is for the most part his story, a comfortable tale of cultural barriers transcended and suspicion turned to friendship and love. We see it in his adoption and transformation of traditional French cooking; we see it in his tutelage of and by Mme Mallory, we see it in his friendship with and attraction to Marguerite (the lovely Charlotte Le Bon), Mme Mallory's sous-chef and protegé.

In the end,  the deceptive nature of the film is a gentle and a beneficent one. It's easy to be cynical and see a formulaic, pseudo-Euro indie film; I prefer to see an intimate story told with the consummate skill and professionalism of a talented director working for two of Hollywood's most legendary mythmakers. And unlike more patronizing efforts, the story rarely lapses into caricature or easy stereotypes (I said "rarely," not "never").

As with any such story, it's possible to tease out all sorts of themes and lessons from this little gem. As with Chocolat, Hallström plays here with the theme of overcoming prejudice and cultural barriers. Unlike the earlier film, however, Journey brims with gentle optimism and grace. Even better, the story of Hassan's rise to greatness as a chef hinges for the most part on an individual identifying what he wants, and working hard to achieve it. His decision at the end to seek his own, more homely path to happiness and success (as compared to the glittering, soulless path offered to him ) stems from a recognition of the values he holds and treasures.

If there's any criticism to be made, it's that the film doesn't go far enough in challenging or confounding expectations. Some will find the ending too easy, too pat, and they might even be right. Yet even here it's hard to be too critical. The story feels believable, the characters feel true, and in the end, sometimes it's okay to give audiences exactly what they are looking for. 

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