The Hundred-Foot Journey
Directed by Lasse Hallström  
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon
Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality
2 hr. 2 min.

It’s just my guess that when producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey hired Lasse Hallström to direct The Hundred-Foot Journey, they were hoping for a repeat of his previous classic Chocolat (2000). Good thinking. It’s a tender story that seems well-suited for Hallström’s laid-back style and picturesque eye.

Alas, for all the lofty thinking that must have gone into this film, someone forgot to figure out a decent ending. So what we get, instead of the wild charm of Chocolat’s Roux (Johnny Depp) and the repressed sweetness of Rocher (Juliette Binoche), is a story that keeps adding sugar without balancing it out.

There are, however, some good moments in this film, particularly when the plot uses humor to carry the story forward. Great veterans like Helen Mirren and Om Puri do their best to bear the load and seem to inspire the storyline with their narrow-eyed expressions and witty repartee. Even the romance between Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon has Depp/Binoche moments — subtle, gentle and just a touch of sadness.

It starts promisingly enough with the saga of an Indian family who lose their chef mother and wife in a fiery riot in their home village. The family travels to England and then France, where they accidentally crash a vehicle outside a small French village. Unbeknownst to them, the queen bee of that village, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), runs a hoity-toity restaurant.

When the large and boisterous Indian family, featuring Papa (Om Puri) and his gifted cook son Hassan (Manish Dayal), discover a culinary paradise filled with ripe fruit, vegetables and some unusually tasty mushrooms, they decide to pitch their tent and open an Indian restaurant right across the street from Mallory. To Papa, it seems as though his wife’s voice has spoken. To the villagers and to Mallory herself, it feels like an invasion.

The eventual rivalry between these two restaurants creates some moments that are genuinely funny. Satire, cultural clumsiness, racism, small-town stuffiness; it all adds up to some wicked moments of misunderstanding, what Papa calls “war.”

Add to this the vivid filming of chefs in action as they create their tasty masterworks. Hallström is at his best when he languishes the camera on the food, and watches the chefs as they take ingredients, mix them together and create magic. In particular, he focuses on the Indian spices and how they seem to create a world unto themselves. Indian food is unique among the culinary arts and Hallström seems to know his way around the kitchen.

Sad to say, if this film had stopped and wrapped up three-quarters of the way through, I would have been happy. Instead, it kept lumbering forward until it hit the big city and lost its way. It makes you want to slap the writer and director for not understanding the true fun here, which is that 100-foot line between French haughtiness and Indian joie de vivre. When everybody decided to kiss and make up, I knew it was time to pack it in. The last chapter in particular seemed to lose heat and spiciness and dissolve into the kind of blah dessert that casts doubt on the chef’s inventive cooking ability.

For all my bickering, I did enjoy the premise of The Hundred-Foot Journey. It’s one of those films where you hope the whole meal is as good as it first appears when the cooks are busy and the smells emigrate from the kitchen to your nose. To have it collapse so close to completion is disappointing. With all the expertise involved here, someone should have known how to blend the spices and make sure the sweet didn’t overwhelm the savory. In this case, the dessert was served much too early.