Is “feel-good” a bad word? Critics often think so. But when a movie explores real emotions en route to its gladdening end, when it takes time to touch on serious issues along the way, it earns the right to make us feel good.
You can see that end almost from the beginning of “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” A widowed Indian restaurateur (Om Puri), burned out of his Mumbai restaurant by political fanatics, moves to Europe with his five kids to begin again. After false starts in London and Rotterdam, their van breaks down in an old French town.
They find a closed restaurant ideal for their purposes. By bad luck, it’s across the street from an establishment run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who’s obsessed with doubling her one-star rating in the famed Michelin guide. To her mind, hot curries and haute cuisine cannot coexist.
Romance blossoms when one child in the Kadam family, elder brother Hassan (Manish Dayal), displays tremendous talent. He wins over a sous-chef from the French staff (Charlotte Le Bon) and convinces Mallory he could be a genius. But if so, will the wide world snatch him away?
Screenwriter Steven Knight (“Amazing Grace”), who adapts a novel by Richard C. Morais, knows how to make a story comforting but not cloying. Director Lasse Hallström (“Chocolat”) can do the same. They take us where we think we’re going, where we want to go, but without making the trip too simplistic.
For one thing, all locations seem alluring. There’s no “city bad, country good” conflict here: Hassan could be happy anywhere he’s allowed to be himself. Teeming Mumbai, the idyllic river town and glittering Paris all have their own appeal.
The town’s mayor (Michel Blanc) sympathizes with both sides in the restaurant war: He doesn’t favor the rich, famous resident over the less well-known newcomer. The movie alludes to the right-wing shift in French politics by having an obnoxious character paint “France for the French!” – a current rallying cry – on a wall, though the filmmakers make clear their belief that tradition and innovation feed each other.
And we see that being a great chef is not just difficult but almost impossible. Education, creativity, dedication and passion aren’t enough without some spark of brilliance, some new way of understanding how food touches us.
Mirren and Puri, wise old veterans, hold down their end. Le Bon and Dayal, who despite his Indian name comes from Orangeburg, S.C., match them in subtlety; she, especially, has a quizzical and intelligent face that’s hard to read. We know happiness awaits them all in the last reel, but their journey toward it never seems phony.