Lasse Hallström has become an expert at making mom-jeans movies, nonthreatening pictures in which headstrong women find love just when they think it's too late (Once Around), take the upper hand with their cheating husbands (Something to Talk About) and turn small French villages topsy-turvy by opening chocolate shops (Chocolat). But the tragedy and the glory of mom-jeans is that they're kind of comfy, at least when they're well engineered. Hallström's The Hundred-Foot Journey, in which the prim proprietress of a très chic restaurant in the French countryside learns life lessons from a raucous family of Indian emigrees, is almost embarrassingly enjoyable, despite the fact that — or maybe because — it's ridiculous in a shiny, Hollywood way. You don't have to buy any of the picture's goofy, fiddlehead-fern plot twists to enjoy Helen Mirren and Om Puri duking it out over which tastes better, coq au vin or tandoori chicken. There's pleasure to be had in watching them fume, argue and ultimately make peace under the soft glow of a Michelin star or two.
Puri's Papa is the head of a clan that runs a successful restaurant in India, until a tragedy sends them packing, first to England and then to France. By accident, the family finds itself stranded in the almost cartoonishly picturesque town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, and Papa — guided, seemingly, by mystical forces — decides it's a good idea to put down roots and open a restaurant. He finds the perfect locale just 100 feet from the hugely successful, if staid, Le Saule Pleureur, run by the forbiddingly proper Madame Mallory (Mirren).
Madame Mallory, in her classically tailored suits and silk scarves, doesn't like it one bit when these people, whom she clearly views as stinky foreigners, string up lights, turn up the Bollywood soundtrack, and open their vibrant and unapologetically ethnic establishment, Maison Mumbai, which infuses the neighborhood with an aroma of curry. But the restaurant is a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood, which only makes Madame Mallory more resentful. It doesn't help that Papa's eldest son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), is a truly gifted chef, a fact established in an early flashback scene showing the child Hassan gamely dipping his finger into the pulpy center of a sea urchin. To further complicate matters, sparks appear to be flying, at least tentatively, between Hassan and Madame Mallory's sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who not only wields a mean carving knife but has also been graced with eye of doe and cheek of peach.
Hallström, working from Steven Knight's adaptation of Richard C. Morais's novel, ticks off all the boxes: This is a story about redemption and tolerance, about finding love at any age or stage of life, about the way cross-cultural "You got chocolate in my peanut butter" culinary fusion can bring us all closer as human beings. But it is, first and foremost, loaded with enchanting scenery and wicked food porn. Director of Photography Linus Sandgren captures the South of France, its landscape dotted with those little pointy trees that look as if they should be growing out of decorated pots, in all its sun-soaked glory. And there's lots of food being prepared, plated and presented, in colors so amazing — the fiery orange-red of a tomato, the bushy green of a parsley garnish — they could incite stubborn toddlers to eat vegetables.
The Hundred-Foot Journey gets a little sluggish in its last third, the part where Hassan needs to prove himself — and then prove himself again — as a serious chef before he can find his true place in the world. But Dayal is an extremely appealing actor: He takes what might have been stock scenes — the moment where Hassan defies his role as a dutiful Indian son; the moment where the white girl rebuffs his tentative romantic overtures — and teases out their subtler undertones.
It's fun to look at beautiful young people like Dayal and Le Bon, but in the end, it's the old pros who really bring it. Puri and Mirren make an unlikely but wonderful match. Puri has to spend a great deal of the movie sputtering and fuming, but he still gives us a sense of this beleaguered patriarch's inner life. Papa is a widower who will never get over the loss of his wife, but Puri plays him as a man who can't admit to himself that he'd still like more out of life than he's getting. There's a sidelong sadness in his eyes, evidence of the kind of vague loneliness you hold at arm's length because to acknowledge it might keep you from getting out of bed in the morning.
It takes awhile, of course, for Mirren's Madame Mallory to see Papa Puri for the gentleman of kindness and grace that he is. Mirren, now an unbelievable age 69, has always been equal parts regal and earthy, two qualities that would seem to be at war with each other. In The Hundred-Foot Journey, her more majestic traits come to the fore: Madame Mallory is too busy, too practical, too grown-up for sensory pleasures. But when she smiles — finally! — and the skin around her eyes crinkles in that amazing way, we're reminded of how eternally, beautifully girlish Mirren is. Youth, supposedly, is wasted on the young, but Mirren hasn't lost the recipe. She's still cooking.