To paraphrase Shakespeare, if food be the music of love, cook on. These days, when a single movie season offers both “Chef” and “Le Chef,” gastronomy is the new pornography. And “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has a shameless appetite for it, like nearly every other modern movie featuring cuisine as the main course. (That’s it! No more food puns. I swear!)
Lasse Hallström’s overdone (I lied) multi-cultural romantic comedy serves close-ups of brilliantly photographed tomatoes, peppers, and egg yolks, slow-motion montages of the sensual preparations of elaborate dishes, and the ecstatic reactions of those tasting the results. Helen Mirren as the formidable restaurateur Madame Mallory taking a bite of an omelet, for example, rivals Tilda Swinton’s orgasmic mastication of a prawn in “I Am Love.”
The omelet scene — at once subtle, nuanced, and obvious — is one of many savory bits from Mirren, and she and the great Indian actor Om Puri as Papa Kadam are the main reasons to see “Journey.” Plus, of course, the gustatory sequences and the painterly landscapes of the mid-Pyrenees in southern France, for all you food and scenery fetishists out there.
Unfortunately, Mirren and Puri are merely supporting characters. Since even a journey of 100 feet must begin with a flashback and a voiceover, this one starts from the point of view of Papa’s son Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal, a good-looking and limited actor) as he recalls how he learned everything he knows about cooking (“It has the taste of life, doesn’t it?”) from his mother, who along with Papa runs the family restaurant in Mumbai. That is, until mom is burned to death during a riot protesting an election.
Not a great appetizer for a blithe romantic feast, perhaps, but it compels the family to leave town and tool about Europe looking for the right spot to settle down. As Papa maneuvers their creaky van along curvy mountain roads in southern France, the brakes fail and they crash to a halt at a spot overlooking the picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. This, he decides, is the place.
“Brakes break for a reason,” he philosophizes.
True enough, and in this case the reason is a contrived screenplay. Turns out there’s a vacant restaurant for sale in town, but it is 100 feet from Le Saule Pleureur, the acclaimed haute cuisine establishment run by Madame Mallory across the street. Widowed, mean-spirited, snobby, and determined to get her second Michelin star, she declares war on the upstart foreigner’s “Maison Mumbai.”
Will the two rivals ever cross that 100 feet, achieve a fusion cuisine, and reconcile their cultures? That could have been an interesting story, especially if told from the point of view of Madame Mallory and Papa, even under the direction of the increasingly twee Lasse Hallström (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” anyone?).
But the adventures of bland Hassan prevail, as he romances Le Saule Pleureur’s cute sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and picks her brain for tips on French cooking while they perfunctorily fall in love. Adding mom’s special spices to traditional dishes proves a sensation and he becomes a success and has inner conflicts and some other stuff happens.
One of the characters, no doubt alluding to Proust, says, “Food is memories.”
Unfortunately, this is one movie about food that I’m forgetting already.