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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Hundred-Foot Journey

100FootJourney53The Hundred-Foot Journey (Three Stars)

U.S./France, Lasse Hallstrom, 2014

Helen Mirren, of Great Britain  is a great movie actress and Om Puri, of India, is a superb actor—and together, as they share the stage and the kitchens for their new film The Hundred-Foot Journey, they whip up quite a tasty dish: a lip-smacking love story and a culinary comedy treat. Mirren and Puri aren’t the sort of actors you’d immediately pick as the stars of a swooningly gorgeous movie love story — she‘s 69 and (here at least) somewhat maternal and haughty , he’s 63 and somewhat pock-faced, gray-haired  and grandfatherly. And, in The Hundred-Foot Journey, they’re supposedly playing second fiddle, romance-wise, to a younger couple — Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal — who are the show‘s “real” lovers. But Mirren and Puri  are both peerless film players, with extraordinary resumes, and they both hold the screen here with that effortless grace, talent and expertise that signals the presence of true artists.

That expertise becomes the crucial ingredient in the recipe of  Hundred-Foot Journey, which is a movie about artistry and cultural collision and how the former can overcome the latter. It’s a film that’s so lustrously visualized and shot (by director Lasse Hallstrom and cinematographer Linus Sandgren) that it looks almost dizzy with joy about the haute-bourgeois pleasures of fine cooking and dining. At its best, and prettiest, it’s infatuated with gastronomy and with the fine points of running a first-class, be-Michelined restaurant, while also turning out a pleasantly old-fashioned Hollywood fable about how a star chef can be born. I liked it, but I can understand the bile of the sometimes bad-tempered detractors who find this film  superficial. It is superficial, but so are many other movies we enjoy.

Meanwhile, to be presented with this lusciously photographed celebration of the pleasures of the plate, with the five star  actors Mirren and Puri (and with two attractive younger lovers, Dayal and Le Bon) is a dish  we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about. I didn’t.

The picture is based on a novel by Richard C. Morais, with a script by the British thriller specialist Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke). And the director, Hallstrom, is  perhaps the right sort of guy to serve as the mediator here. Hallstrom is  a Swede and a cineaste , but not of the Ingmar Bergman variety. He’s not a brooding, dark deep genius ready to take us on a journey into the long dark night of the soul. Nor is he a humanitarian adventurer like that other great Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell. Instead, he’s a filmmaker who likes to show us beautiful pictures (pretty but not dirty) of recognizable people enjoying themselves and working and playing their way though life.  That’s been his specialty since his breakthrough Swedish language film, the wonderful  My Life as a Dog (1985) —  which still remains, I think, along with the American-made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules, one of his three best works.

Instead of his fellow Swedes, Bergman and Troell, Hallstrom (an American émigré for decades), reminds me more of two warm-hearted big studio stylists: Hollywood’s Clarence Brown (The Yearling, Ah, Wilderness!, National Velvet, Intruder in the Dust and many Garbo films), or Britain’s Anthony Asquith (The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy, The Doctor‘s Dilemma). Like both of them, he’s a first-rate visual stylist and a dramatic humanist who tends to be ignored or under-appreciated. He makes pretty pictures, always well-cast and acted, and he makes mostly (though not always) feel-good films. But why should that be held against him? Pleasing movie audiences is not an ignoble profession, and nor should Hallstrom’s somewhat Brigadoonish Chocolat be judged some kind of mortal sin, just because bourgeois audiences enjoyed it.

The Hundred-Foot Journey, similarly. is an enjoyable show, even if at times, it seems a bit shallow, and over-sold. It begins in India, during scenes of social unrest (not very well explained), which drive out the Kadam family, including Puri’s Papa (a paterfamilias) and Dayal’s Hassan (clearly a prodigy), and the clan, rejecting Britain (and its banal vegetables), wind up settling in France, in the stunning midi-Pyrenees French village Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where Papa opens up an Indian-style restaurant, Maison Mumbai, just across the street (100 feet away), from the posh Michelin one-star restaurant Le Saule Pleureur, which is the brainchild of the punctilious grand gourmand Mme. Mallory (Mirren). Mme. Mallory finds Maison Mumbai too loud, too crude and too near– and some of her more bigoted employees find it too Indian.

Things change, though. Caught up in the battle of gastronomic philosophies and cookery between the two majestic restaurateurs, is Papa’s gifted son, Hassan (Dayal), who will turn out perhaps to be the next great French Chef, and Mme. Mallory‘s sous-chef, the deliriously lovely Marguerite (Le Bon). When the latter two pick mushrooms together, we know it’s love — or at least another star. (Or some toothsome mushrooms.)

The first part of the film is taken up with the cultural/culinary battle between Papa and Madame Mallory. In the second part, Hassan rises to glory, and the cultures and cuisines merge happily (or maybe don’t). (I’ll never tell.) All of it is fun to watch — beautifully designed (by David Gropman), beautifully photographed (by Sandgren), and directed with his usual liveliness and panache, by Hallstrom. There are numerous loving shots of the splendiferous dishes created and served up in both restaurants –and in the Parisian molecular eatery where Hassan makes his name. These scenes are designed to elicit the word “scrumptious” from helpless blurbmeisters, and a lot of them do. The movie is also, as much as, say, Babette’s Feast or Big Night,  calculated to make audiences long for a good post-movie dinner reservation at some superior (or economical and fine) temple of food.

This film is not perfect — though Mirren and Puri nearly are. Both of them quietly dominate every scene they’re in. Both of them tend to outshine the presence of the younger lovers — which would happen more often, if our movies and our younger audiences were less ageist. Why should we be deprived of the kind of acting artistry actors like Mirren and Puri give us, simply because some nerd of an executive is obsessed with titillating teenagers?

The Hundred-Foot Journey was produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, and they clearly intended to give us a rare little treat. In many ways, in  a movie lineup that right now is far too dominated by super-heroes and super-horror, they have. In some other ways, they’ve been a little too foody. No matter. Not every restaurant has two stars and not every movie has four.  And not every pleasure has to be justified. For those who want it, Bon appetit. And Bravo Mirren, Bravo Puri. Bring on the dessert.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: The Hundred-Foot Journey”

  1. movieman says:

    Did you notice how the ending of “Journey” quotes the “Cider House Rules” ending?
    Glad somebody else is sticking up for Hallstrom (and his latest film). The sniffling, condescending tone of most “Journey” reviews has been rather baffling.
    Especially since they’re largely coming from the same bunch who genuflected before Marvel Corp. last weekend.


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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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