THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (Rated PG)
Going hungry to the movies is probably not advisable with the plentiful gastronomical pleasures on display in “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”
Buying a large tub of popcorn and assorted snacks of dubious nutritional value will not satiate the palate.
The culture clash of rival dining establishments in a bucolic, sleepy village in the picturesque South of France has all but guaranteed that this charming, enchanting Disney film has all of the substance and staying power of a really nice soufflé from even the best of French cuisine.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which by its title alone explains the chasm to be breached between ethnic divisions, has a zest for life that is expressed most potently by the Kadam family, natives of Mumbai that are forced to flee their homeland as the result of incendiary instability that closes down their restaurant.
Wandering through Europe in search of destiny, the family, under the tough but loving guidance of the patriarch, Papa (Om Puri), comes upon a quaint village when they are stranded due to vehicular breakdown.
Though the small town of Saint-Antonin appears to be the most unlikely place to start an Indian restaurant, the headstrong Papa impulsively decides to buy a run-down mansion that once served as an eatery that did not survive the vagaries of discriminating patrons.
The inevitable clash comes when the Kadam family sets up its culinary operation across the street (hence, the hundred feet of distance) from Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) exquisite palace of French haute cuisine, Le Saule Pleureur, which is striving for the coveted second Michelin star.
Stubborn, officious and firmly set in her ways, the uptight widow Madame Mallory is not so much threatened by the sudden appearance of an Indian restaurant as she is disturbed by the loud and brash behavior of Papa Kadam, who has a fondness for blasting Bollywood music.
Pestering the unflustered town mayor (Michel Blanc) with complaints, Madame Mallory is vocal in her distaste for the garish new Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai, decked out with bright lights, across the road, finding the place offensive to her sense of taste and decorum.
Gallic tradition is under assault, and she won’t stand for it.
Early on, there is an amusing rivalry between Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory, as each one attempts to one-up the other.
The first volley in the culinary war is when Madame buys up all the crayfish at the local farmer’s market, thereby causing Papa the headache of scrambling to find enough substitutes for his opening night celebration.
Meanwhile, the star member of the Kadam clan is the humble and sensitive son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), who long ago acquired from his deceased mother the extraordinary gift of culinary talents so impressive that it’s only a matter of time before he’s discovered by gastronomes (yeah, that means lovers of good food).
As with many young men, Hassan’s ambitions are somewhat tempered by the fact that he is immediately smitten with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the enchanting young woman who befriends his family when they first arrive in town.
It turns out that the lovely French girl is actually a sous-chef at Madame Mallory’s establishment. The relationship between Hassan and Marguerite blossoms because of their mutual love and admiration of the esteemed tradition of French cooking.
Late at night, Hassan can found in his bedroom devouring voluminous French cookbooks borrowed from Marguerite, and though romantic tension simmers between the two cooks, he is most determined to master the magical art of French cuisine, which he is also eager to season with a nice helping of Indian spices.
Some nasty business occurs when a bunch of hateful thugs attack Maison Mumbai, almost burning it down and spraying graffiti on the street wall with racist taunts.
This disturbing event serves to bridge the gap between Madame Mallory and the Kadam family, and soon enough Papa and the lady are dancing and a tender warm glow of mutual attraction follows.
When the barriers come down between the haughty French snob and the tacky Indian clan, Madame Mallory realizes that the gifted Hassan may be her ticket to obtaining the second Michelin star.
So she offers him a prime spot in her kitchen where he’ll work side-by-side with Marguerite, ensuring some more romantic tension for this comedic drama.
With Hassan adding his own touch to classic French dishes like Beef Bourguigon and Pigeon aux Truffes, the culinary world takes notice.
Soon enough and not surprisingly, Madame Mallory’s Le Saule Pleureur gets the coveted recognition she craves.
Along with fame comes a significant detour in this otherwise predictable journey. Hassan ends up in Paris, plying his trade in a sterile, glass-and-chrome fancy restaurant that caters only to food snobs. It doesn’t seem like it will lead to a happy ending.
But then, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” finds its way back to the feel-good slice of culinary delights that comes from the sentimental cultural exchange of fine French and Indian customs. The prodigal son returns to the village.
Food is often about presentation, and here everything is beautifully on display. Besides, Helen Mirren is always a delight to watch, and Manish Dayal and Om Puri are equally fun.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a cinematic excursion worth taking.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.