Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

On the spectrum of lightweight cinema, there are ebullient trifles like Magic in the Moonlight, where charm occurs without demand and then there are films like The Hundred-Foot Journey.  Journey is light, but conflicted about it.  It carries with its frothiness a desire to be something deeper and more affecting.  Labeling a film like this under a genre doesn't work, as it hits all the necessary marks of a particular kind of "nice" "feelgood" type of movie that serves as a corrective cultural balm to audiences who want the illusion of meaning without any of the deeper woes that may come with it.  So, on the one hand, Journey is designed to be airy and semi-inspirational, a Cinderella story by way of Michelin stars.  On the other, it's a type of "problem" picture that uses haute cuisine to speak to differences of class and racial intolerance.  

As the film follows Hassan (Manish Dayal) and his family on their departure from India in the wake of tragedy, we sense the story aspires to undercurrents of politicized domestic drama.  As the family sets up shop in rural France and opens a restaurant only steps away from an outpost for traditional cuisine, the story begins to look a little more like a comedy of errors.  This is amplified all the more by the central conflict surrounding the snobbish chef Madame Mallory's (Helen Mirren) attempts to cut the newly christened Maison Mumbai's life short.  The survival of the family business calls for cutthroat war perpetrated by Mallory and Hassan's bullheaded Papa (Om Puri), with Papa fighting desperately to for the livelihood of his five children.

It's in the time the film focuses on uphill survival and the shifting of paradigms that it finds the most success.  These are sharp, emotional moments that manage to bounce between humor and poignancy with a tilt of Mirren's majestic nose (let's be is).  The story can't seem to sit still here, though, and what should be a focused tale of family veers unsatisfyingly into yet another story about a a gifted diamond on a meteoric rise towards inevitable greatness.  Hassan is a gifted chef, and a quick study.  We're meant to understand this, and as his cooking woos the masses and brings peace to the land, we find ourselves abandoning the sparks connecting the two restaurants and running off on a bland tangent with the film's resident golden boy.  Hassan's success begins to feel forced and pre-packaged, a terrain better suited to an imagined epilogue than seen on screen.  Simply put: we know he'll be successful.  The last thirty minutes of the film?  Largely unnecessary unless we're counting the time spent with Papa and Madame.
We can blame for the tangent, certainly, the film's multi-genre attempt at reaching the widest audience possible (as I understand the novel works a little differently).  It's a people-pleaser.  This is the type of movie that wants to wrap things up too neatly for an audience that can't be bothered with possibilities.  So, it seeks to open hearts through stomachs and laughter and romance while failing to realize which narrative threads are actually the most powerful.  We don't get enough of Hassan's large family.  We don't get enough from the food photography.  We could use just a little bit more of Madame Mallory's slow change of heart (and her relationship with Papa).  Instead of these things, though, we get a long tangent on molecular gastronomy, Parisian foodie culture, and a budding romantic entanglement with a doe-eyed sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon).

In attempting so much, The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes more lightweight than it perhaps intends to be.  The things it seems to want to communicate (some of which we can infer from the well-advertised Oprah/Spielberg backing) are unfortunately lost in the clutter.  As pleasant as the story is, it never quite reaches the point of being truly memorable.  Shame.  Mirren and Puri, though, are notably wonderful.  That they stand out so starkly in a story so engaged with Hassan's "journey" tells you everything you really need to know.

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