Thursday, August 7, 2014

A bland food movie set in France

Despite a good cast, The Hundred-Foot Journey doesn't show enough vitality.
Prior to a preview of screening of The Hundred-Foot Journey, a movie about food and culture clashes in the south of France, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey appeared on screen to explain -- in mildly cute fashion -- that they had co-produced the movie. Winfrey, who has been known to promote a few books in her time, evidently brought Richard C. Morais' 2011 novel to Spielberg.

I don't know how involved Spielberg and Winfrey were in the movie's production, but their participation probably didn't hurt when it came to attracting a cast that's led by the great British actress Helen Mirren and the equally impressive Indian actor Om Puri.

Mirren and Puri play opposing restaurateurs who conduct a high-level food fight in a small French town.

Mirren's Madame Mallory runs a classic French restaurant that has earned a coveted Michelin star. Against the advice of his family, the widowed Puri's Papa opens an Indian restaurant in an abandoned farmhouse that's located directly across the street from Madame Mallory's establishment.

The two restaurants are 100 feet apart, a short distance, but one that stands in ironic contrast to the cultural chasm separating the two cuisines.

Perhaps to ensure that the movie's demographic doesn't tilt entirely toward an older crowd, the cast also includes two attractive young actors: Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon.

Dayal plays Hassan, one of Papa's sons and the cook at the family's new restaurant, Maison Mumbai.

Handsome, talented and sincere, Hassan needs a love interest. Enter Marguerite (Le Bon), a sous-chef at Madame Mallory's much revered restaurant.

Look, I get it. No one expects a movie like The Hundred-Foot Journey to be anything more than a charming assemblage of food shots and romance with a hint of a plot blowing through the proceedings like the pungent aroma from a good kitchen.

I didn't even mind that the movie's depiction of xenophobic French reaction to the "invasion" of "foreigners" doesn't have much bite.

At one point, a group of malcontents sets fire to Maison Mumbai. Hassan's hands are badly burned in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, but the incident is treated with a "no-harm, no-foul" casualness that's difficult to believe.

As it turns out, charm isn't easy to manufacture. Director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules and Chocolat) can't keep The Hundred-Foot Journey from becoming as bland canned soup -- even with fetching views of the gorgeous French countryside.

The story is entirely predictable. Hassan wishes to adapt to his new country and learn the basics of French cuisine. Not only does he master traditional cooking, but he eventually moves to Paris where he triumphs in the upscale world of conspicuously trendy food consumption.

Hassan becomes a superstar of molecular gastronomy, landing on the cover of important culinary magazines.

Will success spoil Hassan or will he ultimately opt for a more homespun life?

There's not much suspense about the outcome, but predictably needn't be a liability in a movie such as The Hundred-Foot Journey. The movie's real sin has less to do with its formulaic tendencies than with with its inability to sustain a vibrant sense of life.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is the kind of movie that suggests that cast and crew may have thought they were betting on a sure thing. Instead, they wound up with a negligible piffle, almost an August throwaway.

Puzzling, no? It's as if someone put a lot of tasty ingredients in the pot, but somehow forgot to light the stove.

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