Monday, August 11, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW The Hundred-Foot Journey
The Culture Clash Of Cooking And Class, In France

Om Puri as Papa, Manish Dayal as Hassan and Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory in "The Hundred-Foot Journey", directed by Lasse Hallstrom.
Touchstone Pictures/Dreamworks Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, August 11, 2014

A delicious, mouthwatering feast of food, fun, culture and comedy, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is also a sheer culinary delight.  Lasse Hallstrom's film of territory and manners is set in the French countryside.  Rearguard blueblood Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), is a widowed and renowned restaurant owner who seeks a second prestigious Michelin Star rating for her French cuisine, which has put every restaurant rival within 100-feet of her out of business.  

Mallory's haughtiness and bitter, racist heart is on full display against an Indian family who open their Maison Mumbai restaurant 100 feet from her famed food palace.  Papa (Om Puri), a widower, has dragged his family to France after escaping an unarticulated political turmoil in India.  His son, aspiring chef Hassan (Manish Dayal), plies his trade at the Maison.  Hassan's native recipes catch the eye of Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a cook at Mallory's restaurant.  Their interactions get more sensual yet tense as Hassan's cooking skill and acumen with many foods breach Mallory's icy veneer.

Flavored with the fine music of the great A.R. Rahman ("Slumdog Millionaire", "127 Hours") and the pungent screenplay of Steven Knight (who wrote and directed this year's "Locke"), "Hundred-Foot Journey", based on Richard C. Morais's best-selling book, offers food, glorious food, and lots of food for thought.  The film looks at cooking and its various ingredients, paralleling them with assimilation amid French xenophobia and hatred of immigrants.  Riots don't arise as they did in French cities in the mid-2000's, but jarring acts of vandalism clash with the warm, easygoing atmosphere Mr. Hallstrom's film displays.

Mr. Puri, excellent and award-worthy as Papa, offers rip-roaring one-liners with nuggets of truth about colonialism, possession and ownership.  You laugh with him as he delivers the lines, and you can't help but think of the implications his words convey, albeit in the brief moments they're uttered.  Audience laughter may bury some of the truth resonating from Papa.  Meanwhile, Mallory, reeking of classism and snootiness, seeks a higher reputation and needs Hassan -- whom she looks down on -- to boost her economic standing.  Hassan's talents and cultural origins are beyond reproach but he's wrested from Papa's restaurant to elevate Mallory's.  What's in it for Hassan?  (At one point Hassan says, "If you can't beat them, join them", but why join a group of xenophobes and racists, and further their empire of exclusion?)

Hassan, Papa and their family have come a long way.  So why does Hassan virtually abandon Maison Mumbai rom the start after nearly being killed in India?  This is one of the film's strangest aspects (as is the hot-cold romance/rivalry between Hassan and Marguerite.)  The lesson of "Journey" though, is about far more than a couple of dozen footsteps.  It's about crossover ambition to the point of oblivion and invisibility.  Crossing over to a hallowed fantasy -- something the American Dream itself often undersells to excited immigrants who arrive only to find that white picket fence glory is a mirage.  At the same time "The Hundred-Foot Journey" often emphasizes sameness and commonality at the expense of difference, uniqueness and generations of ethnic pride and culture. 

This likable Indian family's push-pull entanglement with the ice-cold Mallory is both bewildering and jaw-dropping, under the guise of assimilation.  Stranger still is the chasm and loneliness Hassan experiences when moving on to bigger and better things in Paris, only to return to where he never should have left in the first place.  Hassan's lonely "success" is part and parcel of the mirage/lie of "making it", and of assimilation and ascension. 

What is the cost of success and assimilation, and what does one surrender in "climbing" or shaking the ladder?  The cultural contexts and familiar obstacles the film discards early on return with a vengeance later.  Mr. Knight's script frames all of these issues well despite inconsistencies and conundrums -- ones more often borne of complexity than clumsiness.  Mr. Dayal's expressiveness and charm do the rest, even as the film, which I greatly enjoyed, teeters on rocky and ambiguous footing in the third act.

The hollowness and loneliness of success works both ways in "Journey" however, and Mallory's loneliness is revealing too, in so far as it shows her own well-inhabited facade of comfort and prestige, a faux status girded by faded relevance and built of a phantom reputation as the French countryside's matriarch of food.  There's nothing about Mallory's food or her cooks that suggest they are such supremely skilled cuisine mavens.  It's just accepted and assumed, both class implicit and racially sub-texted.

Mallory's solitariness is built out of spite, not necessarily success.  She craves connection more deeply than she does any merit, but uses the latter as a calling card for companionship.  Family for Mallory is her kitchen but it's a fractured, cold and precise place.  Mallory wants more enrichment than food can give her.  This last conclusion is an interesting paradox, for it is said that for a number of women food and/or chocolate is heaven -- and not second to sex.

Despite flaws here and there I couldn't help liking this crowd-pleasing treat, and its characters' eccentricities.  The wide-eyed Indian family background expressiveness -- seen through the children -- is sometimes cringe-worthy.  It's worth noting that this year's "Million Dollar Arm" and "I Origins", which also preach assimilation to Americanism for Far-East Indians while denigrating the latter, both execute far harsher treatments of Indians.  (We'll see what "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" delivers later this year.)

All of that said, twice my mouth literally watered as spices, colors, and aromas splashed across the screen during "The Hundred-Foot Journey".  This film is made for 4-D.  Its romantic flavor is invigorating.  Its moods are distinct.  See, feel, touch and taste "The Hundred-Foot Journey".  Your senses will thank you for it. 

Also with: Rohan Chand, Juhi Chawla, Amit Shah.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality.  The film's running time is two hours and two minutes.

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