A relentlessly smiley-glowy tone threatens to undo this film at every turn, but it's just about rescued by a spiky script and the adept cast. Director Lasse Hallstrom has been indulging in warm-fuzzy filmmaking since 2000's Chocolat, and this story (based on the Richard Morais book) seems set in the same fanciful, far too-cute France, created with digital effects rather than cinematography. Nothing is remotely realistic, but the characters are engaging and the food looks absolutely delicious. This is definitely not a film to see on an empty stomach.
The central character is Hassan (90210's Manish Dayal), who was born in India and developed his prodigious gift as a chef with his late mother. Now refugees in Europe, Hassan's Papa (Om Puri) is on a quest to establish a restaurant with his five children. They settle on an impossibly quaint French village, and set up their Indian eatery just across the road from the Michelin-starred restaurant run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who of course immediately declares war on these interlopers. Meanwhile, Hassan begins exploring French cookery with Mallory's sexy sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). And his innate expertise catches Mallory's attention.
This simple twist helps propel the story and draw us in, as Hassan proves that he can teach Mallory a thing or two. Where this goes is played out in a simplistic way, but for audience members who are looking for meaning there's quite a bit of insight scattered around the script. Otherwise, Hallstrom is far more interested in superficial imagery, never quite letting the actors dig deep into their characters. Dayal shows some real texture as Hassan, but is reduced in the editing to merely smiling or frowning to show the character's frame of mind. And his relationship with Le Bon's impossibly perky Marguerite is almost painfully predictable.
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