toward Your Dinner Bill
Review by Ken Burke The Hundred-Foot Journey
A gourmet-culture-clash occurs when an Indian family moves to the French countryside to open a restaurant right across the road from Helen Mirren’s haughty establishment.
Before we get to this review, first things first! My once-and-future-writing-partner/theatre critic/talented actor, Pat Craig, and his superb-journalist/creative-craftswoman wife, Kelly Gust, are leaving our Northern California bastion to move even further north, beyond Seattle close to the Canadian border, so I wish them well on the move and in their new home. It’ll be hard to maintain this blog without Pat’s constant contributions—oh, wait, he hasn’t made any yet—and now it’ll be harder for me to get copy from him because he won’t be close enough to drive it over anymore—oh, yeah, the Internet … which works just as well from Dublin, CA as it does from the wild woods of Washington State—but I still appreciate Pat for being willing to inaugurate this site with me back in December 2011 and hope that if he doesn’t find himself too busy again with promoting the live-theatre-community of the Pacific Northwest that he might someday be able to contribute his opinions on the world of cinema so that you don’t have to just listen to me all of the time. I look forward (as do we all) to hearing from you, Pat, whenever you can. (We’re going to keep the Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark name, though, because One Guy in the Dark just sounds a bit too creepy—although it might increase the readership numbers tenfold until they realize what they’re reading about. OK, now on with the review.)
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In The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström) we have the simple story of restaurants in conflict, with the cultural-divide that they represent finally patched over by the unstoppable power of love: romance between both an older and younger couple from the “warring” sides, love of creativity in the kitchen as the necessary ingredient to keep even long-established-successes from going stale, and love for delicious food that will surely encourage you to rush out to either a French or Indian restaurant (or a fusion of such, if you can find it) after the screening; if you need a snack during the movie maybe share a small popcorn so that you don’t come out miserably starving before you’re seated for dinner but don’t indulge with the large-bag-free-refill-size because you certainly won’t want to have spoiled your appetite. Just like a fine meal in a favorite eatery, you know what to expect when you come into The Hundred-Foot Journey, there are few surprises along the way (just a couple to keep you guessing what the new sauce in the next course will taste like but with consistent reassurances that it will more than meet expectations), and a satisfying sense of closure that’s like an just-indulgent-enough-dessert where the sweetness completes your desires yet is not laid on so thick that it leaves you bloated. So, this movie is cute, joyful, momentarily serious, and about as predictable as Le Saule Pleureur, the featured restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) that seemingly hasn’t changed its menu much since the French Revolution. (To paraphrase her, once the new order is in place, why change it if it’s been working for 200 years? Of course, that may work better with food than the various French governments over the last couple of centuries, but as politics are kept to a minimum in this movie we won’t go into that topic much in the review either.)
Our story is set in motion when the Kadam family finds themselves needing to abandon their family restaurant in Mumbai after it’s burned down as part of some unspecified local political uprising (maybe there’s a Hindu-Muslim-tension implied here or an intra-Hindu-sect-problem, but again this isn’t intended as much of a socio-political story so we just have to accept whatever the problem is and quickly move on). By the time proud, stubborn Papa (Om Puri) and his large brood first try settling in London, his wife (played in flashbacks by Juhi Chawla) has died but not before passing on her cooking secrets to her talented chef son, Hassan (Manish Dayai). Tired of the difficulties of attempting to make a living in the rainy climate of their awful location in the Heathrow Airport flight path, Papa decides to head for the south of France to start anew, although he has no particular location in mind nor does Hassan think that the French will abandon their own famed cuisine for the exotic, spicy dishes of India. However, when their van breaks down, they push it into the nearest town where an abandoned restaurant building properly awaits them so Papa buys it, fully convinced that this will be the start of something big.
However, something big is already there; just 100 feet across the local highway at the edge of this picturesque town is the front door of Madame Mallory’s long-standing-establishment, sporting its prized 1 star from the difficult-to-please-Michelin-restaurant-raters. She runs a tight ship, is disgusted that anyone would even attempt to offer such close competition for her famed edibles, and certainly has no respect for such attempted alternatives to be from a culinary tradition so markedly different from hers (however, it’s food that fuels her prejudices, not racism, so when one of her chefs takes her distain for the newcomers too aggressively and rounds up some local thugs to deface and firebomb the Maison Mumbai she promptly fires him, then spends the next day herself in the rain scrubbing graffiti off of her new neighbors' front wall). The peace process takes another turn, though, when Hassan finally convinces her to taste some of his cooking at which point she’s impressed enough with his abilities that she offers him a 6-month-trial under her tutelage as a strategy to finally boost her Michelin rating to an even-better-2-stars (although Hassan has to wait a bit before starting because his hands were burned in the fire attempt on his family’s place; this, however, leads to him directing her in the preparation of the taste-test-omelet that wins her over, showing her that he even knows his business well enough to direct someone else with his recipes, which he’d eventually need to do if he proved to be as potent as she assumes). Well, as you might expect, his natural ability (enhanced by his mother’s teaching and the appropriate use of the family spice jars given to him by his father to keep his traditions alive even within the context of a new approach to entrées) quickly rises to the top, a Michelin critic is impressed with the innovations, the second star is forthcoming, and Hassan is soon recruited to Paris to expand his talents in a cutting-edge-restaurant where his repertoire grows along with his talent and fame, yet he longs for what he left behind back in the countryside.
The main thing left behind is Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), an up-and-coming-sous chef working for Mme. Mallory who’s both attracted to Hassan (as a fellow gastronomic specialist as well as a potential lover) and angry that his sudden intrusion into “her” kitchen has stalled her own hoped-for-career at Le Saule Pleureur. Because of his sudden fame, they part on less-than-ideal-terms, after already having had a push-pull-relationship while Hassan was still her co-worker, yet it’s clear that he’s never forgotten her even with the adulation he’s now receiving in the capital, gracing magazine covers and being connected by gossip-columnists to desirable ladies of the metropolis, while the truth is that his off-time is spent in sullen thoughts at local bars, contemplating the central metaphor of the movie that he can’t fully realize the superb truffle recipe that he’s seeking, not because of any lack of talent on his part but because the prized ingredient only exists in the forests of his former location (you can supply your own pun about Marguerite’s “forests”; I'm trying to keep my personal comments on a PG level so that I don't get further hassles from Google). Even while we’re watching the personal hardships of Hassan, though, the story is kept buoyant by the increasing connection between Papa and Madame Mallory as she comes to accept his family as true neighbors while both of their restaurants continue to thrive as does their interpersonal connection (at least we assume this is true for the Maison Mumbai, where Papa’s other older son has taken over the cooking duties, although we never see any crowds eating there after Hassan’s departure—they were packing into the place once it was discovered by the locals, even before Hassan moved on across the street, another reason for Mme. Mallory’s initial resentment and the brief xenophobia that threatened their first presence in the neighborhood). All’s well that ends well, though, as Hassan slips back into this provincial town to make an arrangement with Mme. Mallory to take over her restaurant but in a new partnership—both professional and personal—with Marguerite, as they reach for the coveted (highest) third-Michelin-star but now with the further-evolving Le Saule Pleureur. (I’ve actually eaten at a Michelin 3-star-location, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, CA for my wife, Nina’s, 60th birthday, a fabulous meal but expensive beyond all comprehension—as best I remember; see, we had a large family group that night so we took a limo for the hour-long-ride into the countryside to get there with champagne and bourbon in the car and then lots of great wine with the meal so the menu we saved showed it to be a fabulous feast but you'd have to ask Sean Penn because he and his unknown date were walking out just as we were coming in [seriously], so beyond that it's just a tasty blur of astounding delicacies for me.)
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a delightful story—even with its constant predictabilities—constructed with enough romance and mouth-watering-food-scenes to appeal to all of your physical and emotional senses, even if you soon push its memory aside with the more immediate appeal of that delightful actual meal that you finally get to partake in after the screening. As further time passes, this movie will likely just merge into the stream of other food-feast-cinema that you’ve enjoyed over the years, where the individual stories don’t matter much in retrospect even if they felt delightful while you were watching them. (I must confess that while I do enjoy a well-prepared-food-movie such as this one I enjoy a well-prepared-meal even more and am more likely to remember what I ate than what I saw as the years roll along [as best I can; see The French Laundry story above]—I started to say that this goes for sex as well, but that would be crass, wouldn’t it? [as well as drifting even further from my PG-context-intentions—but, you know, at times you just have to branch out a bit, if only to honor the memory of Robin Williams].)
However, I must note that it seems the marketing folks at the combination production companies of Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Studios, Harpo Films (and 3 others) are focused more on promoting some of their bosses’ connections to this succulent tale as producers (the biggest names being Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, although there are 7 others in the generic “producer” credits, including co-, executive-, and line-) than on the product itself, which is a charming movie but seemingly from a well-used-recipe-book of its own regarding young lovers with a situational difficulty keeping them apart, an older generation that prides itself on its members’ distain for the unfamiliar, and the reliable audience reaction when you offer closeups of exquisitely-cooked-dishes that quickly push popcorn and soda to the back of the line of tempting-taste-treats. This is all lovely to look at (enhanced by the natural beauty of the Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val French countryside, as was Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight [review in our July 25, 2014 posting], shot in the Côte d’Azur French Riviera area), but when you start looking over the available press materials put forth to promote this cinematic offering and find that of the few photos made available to critics such as me 2 of the 6 of them feature a recipe for and a shot of Beef Bourguinon a la Hassan (actually created by Chef Floyd Cardoz) while another is simply a chummy image of
Winfrey and Mirren (nothing wrong with such when you’ve given a couple dozen or more to choose from rather than this ONE! from the official website, of Oprah and Helen) while another 2 of those 6 decent-high-resolution-choices that I can get are repetitions of the poster used with the first paragraph of my review, then you have to wonder how much faith these dedicated producers really had in the substance of their product given that I had to explore several other sources to even get 1 useable image of Marguerite, the supposed-inspiration that brings all of the strands of the story back together at the end. Maybe the folks who churn out more-active-fare such as Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn; review in our August 7, 2014 posting) are just trying to cover up their lack of substance with a lot of pictures that critics and publicists can use to create hype for their films, but at least they offer such tools; the folks in charge of hype-creation for The Hundred-Foot Journey don’t even want to provide much variety in what readers will see when they skim past numerous options for reading reviews of their product, which gets a bit frustrating at my end sometimes. (But that just goes with being a fly-by-night-critic rather than being on the press lists for the bigger-studio-products, although folks such as Steven and Oprah might want to try to get a little more mileage out of bloggers like me if they want to increase the take for this movie which has made only about $11 million so far in the same 1-week-span for those teenage turtles who grabbed about $65.5 million while 2 weeks in release has netted the Galaxy Guardians about $176.5 million; I certainly don’t claim to be making or breaking anybody’s releases with my “hefty” 7,000 readers per month [the total’s a little higher now that I’m plugging Two Guys on Facebook, and I thank all of you for your continuing interest] but if I could get access to a few more usable promotional items at times I could spare us the sort of grainy images that I had to pull from my Boyhood [Richard Linklater] review [see our July 31, 2014 posting] before I made it public because they were too ugly to look at, as is the borderline case for a couple I've used here.)
As I’m about to take a month-long break from writing these reviews (more on that below, but as you can tell from the pissant griping from the end of the last paragraph it’s probably a good thing for all of us that I get away for a bit) I wanted to leave you with something fairly ridiculous as my chosen Musical Metaphor for The Hundred-Foot Journey so you could have some time to re-evaluate why you even read my comments in the first place; therefore, I present to you “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies (from “their” 1969 Everything’s Archie album). After seeing all the fabulous food in this movie, prepared so purposefully, delicately, with such well-chosen ingredients and spices, this song came to mind as not so much a metaphor for The … Journey’s story but more of an antithesis, doctoring up bland food with the most taste-buds-overwhelming-additions (short of XXX-level-hot-sauce) you could grab from your kitchen shelf to just subdue your palate in one quick assault; further, I’ve never gotten over my amazement that this silly song (performed by a bunch of studio musicians, not even a real group) from 1969 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9nE2 spOw_o (the original “music video,” if you can really call it that, from the associated Saturday-morning-TV-show) could have become the nation’s #1 hit for that year in the time of psychedelia, social upheaval, and Woodstock, so there’s more than a little snarkiness in using it as well (but consider yourselves lucky; if I had wanted to be a bit more in keeping with the movie, I’d have used the Ohio Express’ 1968 “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I’ve Got Love in My Tummy)” but if you’re desperate enough to listen to that you’ve going to have to search for it on your own [you might prefer the version by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, a difficult choice I admit]). I guess it was just a throwback-type of musical relief from all of the more intense cultural confrontations and “loadie-music” of the time (as my wonderful wife, Nina, calls it, not her favorite from the era compared to the Motown catalogue because she says you couldn’t dance to extended guitar and drum solos, while people at some of the parties she attended were too stoned to dance anyway, she tells me; as a serious university student at the time, I, of course, never had such distractions—besides, in Texas in those days you could get a 99-year-sentence for possession of 1 joint [no exaggeration] so I stuck to the traditional way of appreciating my college years: getting drunk), but ultimately it does connect with the conclusion of The Hundred-Foot Journey where romance blossoms for the 4 principals of the story so maybe Madame and Marguerite would see themselves as “candy girls” after all, while waiting for new stars to shine from the Michelin galaxy. Anyway, if you can’t afford their haute cuisine maybe you just want a sugar-filled-brownie anyway (but be sure you know what variety of herbs may be in it if you’re not ready yet to dance on the rooftop of a restaurant).
(This photo of the scrumptious-looking-Hassan-beef-dish has nothing to do with this final paragraph, but it’s the only official 1 offered to those of my ilk by the movie’s marketers that I haven’t used yet so I thought I’d stick it in here at the end. Besides, I want to leave you something substantial to remember me by for awhile, so this probably works better than most of my reviews.) Finally, let me reassure you that just because Pat’s further disappearing from our enterprise’s cyber-location doesn’t mean that we’re shutting down, but it may seem that way because this is the last time you’ll be hearing from me (Ken Burke) for about a month. Nina and I are going on a vacation with her sister and brother-in-law into the various Atlantic and Eastern Provinces of Canada so I’ll be purposely, cheerfully out of Internet contact and likely won’t be seeing many films either during this time. I realize that you may initially suffer some withdrawals from my diversions and ramblings, but if you feel the need for opinions and distractions (along with misinformation) you can always just tune in to Fox News for about 5 minutes and I think your cravings will be satisfied. See you again in late September as the baseball season is wrapping up, when I hope to find my beloved Oakland Athletics heading for the October playoffs (and maybe beyond just playoffs this year) unless they also suffer a breakdown from not having my constant attention. I know it’s going to be difficult for the world to keep revolving without my constant input (at least that’s the message I get from political campaigns and petition-requestors on a daily basis); however, you’re welcome to make random comments on this and any of my past posts just to keep Two Guys in the Dark alive in some manner until my overheated keyboard gets rolling again in late September. ‘Till then, au revoir!
If you’d like to know more about The Hundred-Foot Journey here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVDcJ1EL2JE (4:14 interview with producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, with more input than needed from the chatty host)
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.