When you say someone in Hollywood is a hard-working actor, they might have over 100 films on their filmography, an astounding feat these days. When you say someone in Bollywood is a hard-working actor, you can multiply that by two or even three times, easily. In the case of Om Puri, one of the stars of Lasse Hallstrom's film version of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," a novel by Richard C. Morais, he's an institution, the star of over 11,000 movies.
I may be off by 10,800 or so, but the point remains… Puri is an icon, and if only to watch him play opposite Helen Mirren, the two of them throwing attitude back and forth at one another, I would have to recommend a viewing. As it turns out, the film is a mild pleasure at best. There's nothing necessarily wrong with it, and it's well-crafted, but the screenplay by Steven Knight is so remarkably free of anything resembling actual drama that I'm almost mystified by it.
Basically, the film tells the story of a young man named Hassan (Manish Dayal) who decides he wants to be the best chef in the world, and then he is, and nothing really gets in his way or slows him down at all, and he also gets the girl and everything else he wants. The end.
The marketing for the film is deceptive, making it look like it's all about the cultural clash between French traditional cuisine in the form of Madame Mallory (Mirren) and Indian cuisine in the form of Papa Kadam (Puri), each of them running restaurants directly across the street from one another. And while that is, indeed, part of the film, it's a very small part. It would be like selling "Star Wars" as the story of some people who play chess on a spaceship.
The film traces Hassan's journey from when he is a young boy and he first discovers just how overwhelming a sensory experience cooking can be, and by the time he and his family end up settling in a small French village, there's already been quite a bit of set-up. Hassan's mother dies in a fire when he's young, and while she begins his training as a chef, Hassan is left to fend for himself. When they find themselves stranded in a particular French town because their car's brakes fail, Papa decides to settle there.
The battle between Madame Mallory and Papa is actually dispensed with fairly quickly. The film is more interested in Hassan's slowly dawning fascination with French food and his relationship with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the sous chef at Mallory's restaurant. She helps Hassan start to understand French cooking, and then has to watch as he blows past her on his way to the top.
Even then, the film has a larger canvass it wants to utilize, and it follows Hassan out into the world, and no matter what, it just seems to be smooth sailing. The film doesn't even pretend to throw obstacles in Hassan's way. It feels like a film that is trying to make the audience feel good, but it rings hollow, and no matter how good the cast is and how hard Hallstrom tries, it never feels authentic. Great cooking films need to show us just how much of a person's heart and soul are mixed up in their cooking, and this film talks about it without earning it in any way.
Linus Sandgren's photography is lush and vivid, and it's hard to make the south of France look terrible. He also takes full advantage of just how pretty both of the young leads are. But like the script, the photography feels like it captures the surface, and none of the reality that grounds a country's cuisine, that connects it to the land it came from. I don't feel the same passion for food here that I do when I watch "Big Night" or this year's "Chef," a movie that does a much better job of showing just how tied to someone's identity their cooking is. The cast tries their best, and they all do respectable work, but the characters they're playing barely register, working more as collections of familiar tics than actual people.
If I were to call the film a disappointment, it would imply that I expected something more from it. Just throwing the weight of Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg behind this trifle doesn't give it any real weight. It is, at best, a light dessert, one that dissolves immediately, easily forgotten as soon as it's gone.
"The Hundred-Year Journey" opens in theaters on Friday.