A deft mix of food, love, and humanism, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an unapologetic crowd-pleaser. Director Lasse Hallström's adaptation of Richard C. Morais' novel works, thanks to a number of charismatic actors and a smart script by talented writer Steve Knight.
As the movie opens, the Kadam family, who fled India after a political upheaval resulted in the burning of their family restaurant and the death of their matriarch, emigrate from London to the south of France. Led by the proud and stubborn Papa (Om Puri), the family buy an abandoned eatery in the countryside -- which just happens to be situated 100 feet from the front door of Le Saule Pleureur, a successful French restaurant with a Michelin star run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who has kept the place thriving in memory of her deceased husband.
Mallory is none too pleased when she learns that the Kadams plan to open an Indian place right next door, leading to a racially tinged feud that only intensifies when she discovers that Papa's son Hassan (Manish Dayal) is an exceedingly talented chef. After some unexpected violence leads to an act of contrition on Mallory's part, the two factions begin a tentative friendship. Eager to obtain another star for Le Saule Pleureur, Mallory offers to train Hassan and have him work in her kitchen alongside her talented sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), with whom the young man is already smitten.
Executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, The Hundred-Foot Journey is as middlebrow as it gets. Screenwriter Steve Knight, whose work often contains political undercurrents, does touch on issues related to immigration here, yet the movie is really an old-fashioned Hollywood tale of tolerance that wouldn't dream of upsetting anyone. However, the film's politics are strictly window dressing for the delightful performances and delectable images of food and the French countryside.
Manish Dayal is handsome and charming as a gifted young man who is only interested in improving his craft and falling in love. Le Bon looks like a French Winona Ryder, and she balances Marguerite's affection for Hassan with her resentment at the competition he represents.
While those young actors keep this solid piece of entertainment humming along, Puri and Mirren steal every scene they're in. He gets most of the film's big laughs, which he delivers with hangdog earnestness, while she gets to play the ice queen who thaws. There's a moment late in the movie in which she gets good news from a phone call, and her physical reaction, so overwhelming and so true, makes you totally believe that what you're seeing is happening for the first time. It's the kind of telling little detail that has made Mirren such a respected actress.
Hallström has worked in this territory before, earning a Best Picture nomination for the frothy Chocolat -- another film where the food mattered as much as the characters. Oscar voters probably won't remember this one come nomination time, but that's all well and good because The Hundred-Foot Journey isn't high-end cuisine; it's comfort food that has been prepared and presented with skill and pleasure.