In The Hundred-Foot Journey, the Kadam family—doe-eyed Hassan (Manish Dayal), a chef who learned all he knows from his mother; his bullheaded father, referred to only as Papa (Om Puri); and Papa’s four other children—leave India when their family restaurant is torched. The fire, a hate crime that incinerates Hassan’s mother, is described only as the result of “some election” and quickly dismissed, as there’s no place for grief in this upbeat dramedy. Instead, as Hassan tells the family’s story to a customs officer, a brisk mix of exposition and flashbacks sets the lightly comic, surface-skimming tone that the film will stick to as the nomadic clan briefly touches down in England, then moves to France. It’s there that they settle down in a postcard-perfect town with a bustling greenmarket, red-tiled rooftops, a cobblestoned town square, and an abandoned restaurant, where they recreate the warmly lit, welcoming establishment they left behind in Mumbai, only to enter into a battle with the restaurant across the street.
There’s plenty of the vicarious haute-bourgeois pleasure that all movies about great cooks promise to deliver. With its flattering yet festive lighting, warm brick walls, heaping platters of food, and cheerful music, the new restaurant is a bubbling spring of life in a field of majestic serenity. When a little girl being brought by her parents to the coldly formal restaurant across the street stretches out her arms to the Kadams’ Maison Mumbai, her longing is understood given the restaurant’s magnetic pull. The camera nearly salivates as it showcases the Indian foods Hassan prepares for his guests, as well as the French cooking he practices on his own time (an egg yolk poured into a bowl and whisked gets a backlit close-up that Gisele Bündchen might envy). But it takes more than these mild pleasures to offset tired food metaphors and plot twists so predictable you see them coming like travelers on the poplar-lined street that leads to the restaurants.
Luckily for us, Madame Mallory, the manager of the rival restaurant, is played by the great Helen Mirren, who injects the proceedings with genuine emotion as the ferocious Madame first tries to put the Kadams out of business and then warms to them, accepting Papa as her suitor and employing Hassan as her head chef in hopes of scoring a second Michelin star (his move from the family restaurant to hers is the hundred-foot journey of the title). It may have been a foregone conclusion that Madame Mallory’s restaurant would win that second star after Hassan become her chef, but when she embraces Hassan to thank him for the feat, the pro forma turns profound. Mirren also comes close to selling the film’s main form of wish fulfillment, which is not its softcore foodie porn, but its vision of a world in which xenophobia is easily conquered by right-thinking people. The lecture Madame Mallory delivers to her head chef about the right and wrong ways to be French is thrillingly acidic, and Mirren is a formidable enough presence to make you almost believe that Madame Mallory could single-handedly hold all the town’s prejudice at bay.