Hassan Kadam, the hero of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," was born to be a chef. As a kid in Mumbai, he swooned over the scent of fresh urchin, and he grew up to run his family's humble restaurant. His mother taught him how to use spices. "Life," she says, "has its own flavor."
What does that mean, exactly? No matter -- it sounds poetic and makes for a nice moment, so it goes in. That pretty much sums up how director Lasse Hallström concocts "The Hundred-Foot Journey." A lesser filmmaker might have ended up with a muddy stew, but Hallström, a Swede with a knack for pleasing the Middle American palate ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Cider House Rules"), knows exactly what he's doing.
For starters, he's in safe territory. Hassan is a likable aspirant straight out of the smash hit "Slumdog Millionaire" (the two movies share a composer, A.R. Rahman), and he shares America's obsession with food. As the story progresses, Hassan relocates to the picturesque French village Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where his stubborn Papa (Om Puri) wants to build a restaurant. Fatefully, just across the street (can you guess the distance?) sits Le Saule Pleureur, a one-star Michelin gem run with a cast-iron fist by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, perfect as always).
Even if you haven't seen Hallström's "Chocolat," from 2000, you know where this is going. Hassan starts a forbidden romance with Mallory's staffer Marguerite (a charming Charlotte Le Bon) while the two restaurateurs do amusing battle at the green-market. Eventually, a crisis will bring both "families" together. The acting is generally fine, although this cast is like Scotch: The older, the better. Mirren is ice on two legs, while Puri, an Indian actor with a campfire warmth, melts everyone around him.
The story loses steam when Hassan leaves for the big city (the "molecular gastronomy" movement is depicted as sexy, flashy and soulless), and the movie's upbeat ending is about as reality-based as the one in Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Overall, it's tough to grumble about such a sturdy and crowd-pleasing soufflé.
PLOT A fancy French restaurant and a humble Indian eatery do battle.
RATING PG (mild language, brief violence, sensuality)
CAST Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon
BOTTOM LINE From the director of "Chocolat" comes this crowd-pleasing soufflé. Mirren's icy matriarch is terrific, even if the rest is mostly air.
LASSE HALLSTROM'S EXTRAORDINARY FILMS ABOUT ORDINARY PEOPLE
Before taking "The Hundred-Foot Journey," three-time Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström already had embarked on a four-decade career. The Swedish director's insightful, humanistic films often examine ordinary people at emotional crossroads.
MY LIFE AS A DOG (1985) Hallström earned his first two Academy Award nominations for directing and cowriting this adaptation of a novel about a 12-year-old (Anton Glanzelius) learning to face the deaths of his mother and his dog.
WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993) A critically acclaimed box-office failure, the picaresque tragicomedy of a young Iowan (Johnny Depp) trying to hold together his fatherless family -- including a morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) and a mentally disabled brother (Leonardo DiCaprio, earning his first Oscar nomination) -- has since become one of the decade's best-loved films.
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999) John Irving won an Oscar for adapting his novel of incest, abortion and the growth of an orphan (Tobey Maguire) to manhood. Hallström and the film both earned Oscar nominations.
CHOCOLAT (2000) In another best picture nominee, a young mother (Juliette Binoche) opens a chocolaterie in a French village, alarming and enticing the staid townsfolk. -- Frank Lovece