Watch Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Laura Calder prepare voluptuous, drool-inducing meals on TV, and after a while patterns begin to emerge. Aside from the legitimate instructional aspect – how not to burn or mangle ricotta fritters before they’re ready to be lifted gently out of the pan and nestled into a homemade mushroom and tomato sauce, for example – an emotional component competes for dominance. Popular culture’s current food obsession is about achievement: of a state of middlebrow luxury, of well-being and community connection, of a kind of secular spiritual meaning where there was once merely the joy of taste and full bellies.
Those TV cooks aren't guilty of encouraging their audience’s projections specifically, but The Hundred-Foot Journey is, and happily so. From the opening moments, as the soon-to-be-martyred matriarch of an Indian family of cooks murmurs to her son, “Sea urchins taste of life…” and, moments later, “You cook to make ghosts, spirits that live on in every ingredient,” it’s a movie on a mission to edify your soul. And, sure, why not ghosts in the food? It’s more fun than believing in a deity that calls you an abomination for eating shellfish.
Based on the novel by Richard C. Morais, Journey finds itself multiplexed by producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, and directed by Lasse Hallström, who swaddles every frame in the same color-saturated glow of cooking shows. That hundred feet is the measured street-crossing distance between two competing eateries in a cozy French village, one a Michelin-starred restaurant operated by stern, Chanel-bound Helen Mirren, the other a vibrant family affair opened by Indian political refugees. Their happy clan, presided over by the charismatic “Papa” (Om Puri), includes an intuitive young chef named Hassan (Manish Dayal), a cooking genius destined for greatness. When the two sides meet, it's dislike at first sight, the launch of a food war.
It’s also a bit of a race war, as some of the less evolved residents in the postcard-perfect town seem to have misplaced their liberté, égalité, and fraternité. And in a crowd-pleasing recipe like this, where too many ingredients is just fine, there’s also a magically beautiful female chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who falls for Hassan, plus the unseen-yet-quite-talkative spirit of the widowed Papa’s wife, and the slow melting of Iceberg Mirren.
If this were a tale told by, say, Michael Haneke, somebody’s throat would be slit by the end of the second act, and the cold, hard reality of France’s currently quite ugly culture war over immigration would leave you appropriately without hope. But this is gentle Hallström’s salvageable France, one where understanding, decency, love, and the cooking of really kickass omelettes drives crabby naysayers to tears of joy. Its pastoral fantasy demands that newcomers supply the simplicity, goodness and other qualities uptight white people have to learn in films about culture clash; it also requires the triumph of small-town values over decadent Paris, seen here as a nighttime hellscape of stress, wine-guzzling, cell phones and, most horrifically, that diabolical molecular gastronomy, the trendy scourge of authentic food pleasure.
The cast is uniformly appealing and game for the love-in, especially Mirren and Puri, whose antagonistic charms ground every silly falsehood going on around them. Their battle strategy involves weakening your resistance, and, if necessary, just driving a tank over you. It's a special kind of tank, though, fueled by warm cookies and milk. What's that? You don't like warm cookies and milk? Sorry, but YES YOU DO.