There are people who will watch “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and think it’s the cheesiest thing since the invention of Velveeta. There are people who will see this movie and find it to be a tale so heartwarming that it could save you from hypothermia. And there are people who will see this movie and realize that the humor of stubborn old people can transcend cultural, geographic and culinary boundaries. Like dance and music, this form of humor seems to be a language of the world.
Though “Journey” follows a familiar cinematic path in terms of its story, it seems to take a unique pleasure in getting there. At two-and-a-half hours, this movie is in no hurry to reach its end, and that is actually a plus. Its basic plot — of two restaurants trying to outcook one another — is familiar enough to most people that it doesn’t seem to need retelling. Even the added twist that the story is set in provincial France and that one restaurant serves only classic French cuisine and the other traditional Indian fare could play out like an overcooked steak. Fortunately, the film is much more carefully prepared than that.
“Journey” tells the story of a Indian family, led by Papa (Om Puri), who leave their homeland for Europe after their restaurant burns in a terrible fire. By accident — or fate — they end up in the South of France and decide to open the colorful and glaringly “ethnic” restaurant, Maison Mumbai, exactly 100 feet away from the region’s most celebrated restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, run by the uppity Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Even before the Maison opens it doors, tensions have built between the two restaurateurs and their respective employees and families, to the point where the vaccination of chickens becomes a major point of contention.
At the same time, Papa’s middle son, the most talented cook in the family, Hassan (Manish Dayal), yearns to not only make a peaceful life for his family in their new home but also to improve his culinary skills, especially if it means he can get help from the beautiful sous chef of Le Saule Pleureur (Charlotte Le Bon).
What begins as a restaurant battle ripe for the Food Network grows into a story about change, adaptation and learning to love anew. The greatness of this film rests not in the uniqueness of its storyline but in the wit of its characters, especially the older folks who are so set in their ways.
Though the food itself takes a backseat to the lives of the characters, its relationship to those lives is instrumental in instilling opposing passions and cultures.
Cultural difference plays a kind of strange role in and around the film. “Journey” takes place in France; stars British, Indian, Canadian and Indian American actors; features a Swedish director (Lasse Hallstrom) and is produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Within the story, geographically different cultures butt heads in very real and painful ways. The characters, however, wear their feelings about their cultures and others’ perceptions of them on their sleeves through humorous, but poignant, banter.
The mixing of foods across cultures is another positive outcome of the initial clash of the characters’ cultural differences. But when the traditional foods of the characters are tested in the ultra modern cuisine of Paris, the outcomes aren’t necessarily positive. In the end, the biggest enemy of this story is not change or even cultural difference but getting too far away from one’s roots.
This film is charming in the simplest and most enjoyable sense of the word, and it will probably give viewers the warm fuzzies. With that being said, it also illustrates very relevant issues in today’s global landscape through the blending of food with more than a touch of spice.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is playing at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.