At its advance screening in Chicago, The Hundred-Foot Journey commenced with an official video endorsement from its producers: For a small eternity, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey traded food puns and positive platitudes, the latter insisting that the movie everybody was about to watch would be suitably “uplifting.” This sales pitch seemed not just desperate, but completely unnecessary; as Waylon Smithers might point out, the audience was already seated, so there was no need to keep hustling them. Besides, anyone who goes to a movie like The Hundred-Foot Journey knows damn well they’re in for some uplift. This innocuous crowd-pleaser delivers everything that its pedigree and ad campaign promise, courting the patronage of foodies, Oprah Book Club members, Travel Channel subscribers, and Helen Mirren lovers alike.
Despite her prominent placement on the badly Photoshopped poster, Mirren is not technically the star of The Hundred-Foot Journey, which draws its palatable culture-clash plot from a 2010 bestseller. In fact, the dame is initially positioned as the film’s nominal antagonist—the snooty proprietress of an upscale eatery in the tiny French village of Lumière. Across the street from her revered establishment, a family from Mumbai has dared to erect its own restaurant, the stubborn patriarch (Om Puri) gambling that he can get the locals hooked on his exotic cuisine. His secret weapon is his son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), a young cook who yearns to be a chef—and maybe also to share some forbidden fruit with the pretty French girl (Charlotte Le Bon) who works in the kitchen of his new rival. Can anything bridge the cultural chasm separating these culinary competitors?
Journey force-feeds its audience lots of pretty rudimentary morals, helpfully reminding that its feuding restaurateurs aren’t so different after all, in spite of their opposing views on coriander. Though the film positions its central rivalry as a snobs versus slobs showdown—with Hassan and his family as the underdogs flying a flag for real flavor—it also shares with Mirren’s Madame Mallory a drooling reverence for the Michelin star system. Molecular gastronomy is a source of oohs and awes, until it becomes a sterile prison for a chef who needs to remember the value of real eats. The message is mixed: Chase your culinary dreams, but also go back to your roots, because appearing on the cover of fine-dining magazines will never be as satisfying as being the big fish in a little pond.
Returning to the food-as-unifier territory of his Oscar-nominated Chocolat, veteran tripe peddler Lasse Hallström offers an endless buffet of food porn, as well as enough postcard-pretty European imagery to paper the walls of a travel agency. His actors make the most of the ingredients they’ve been given: There’s a soulfulness to Dayal’s earnest puppy-dog routine, and Mirren gamely upturns her nose in a futile attempt to disguise the obvious fact that her character has a heart beating beneath her snobbish facade. Everything goes down smoothly, including the impossibly chaste romance. But for a film that champions the transcendent power of spice, The Hundred-Foot Journey is awfully bland. It’s less delicacy than comfort food—tasty enough, but destined to stay with viewers about as long as the White Castle sliders they might eat on the way to the theater.