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Weak sauce

Director Lasse Hallstrm uses a basket overflowing with delicious ingredients to cook up an unsatisfying cinematic meal

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Om Puri.

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Racism isn't pretty.

But that's not to say a movie about racism can't be pretty, if not lushly beautiful, at least in the hands of director Lasse Hallstrm.

Hence, The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation of Richard C. Morais's book by screenwriter Steven Knight (Locke), with both Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey giving their collective oomph to the producer credits.

A seasoned hand with adult drama (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) Hallstrm here concocts a movie that is equal parts chaste romance, family drama and culinary adventure, with the issue of race bubbling insistently on the back burner.

It is an unspecified political divide that expels the family Kadam from their home in India. Their restaurant burned to the ground and the family matriarch was claimed by the flames.

That leaves the doggedly stubborn Papa (Om Puri) to seek his family fortunes anew in Europe with a new restaurant. His secret weapon is his son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a culinary savant trained by his late mom. While seeking new digs, the family car happens to break down in the postcard-perfect village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France. Papa, a bit of a mystic, takes it as a sign: "Sometimes brakes break for a reason."

Papa chooses a long-abandoned, rundown restaurant to revive into the Maison Mumbai, despite another son's warning that French people don't appreciate Indian food.

The kid has a point. It certainly doesn't help that the established restaurant right across the street is Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred establishment trading in classical French cuisine.

That restaurant's proper proprietress is Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a woman naturally offended, not by the competition, but by the very existence of a noisy ethnic family restaurant in her immediate proximity. Her obsessive search for a second Michelin star is, she feels, in imminent danger.

Inevitably, conflict flares, exacerbated by a racist element in Madame Mallory's own kitchen. At the same time, Mallory's winsome sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) starts to share more than sauce recipes with Hassan. Befitting the movie's G rating, we're talking smouldering glances and a kiss or two. Still, the couple do succeed in generating a slow simmer on the strength of their moony gazes into each other's eyes. It is debatable which of the two actors -- Daval or Le Bon -- is more beautiful. (Seriously. The wife and I remain deadlocked on this.)

As with Chocolat, Hallstrm demonstrates his keen facility for picturesque French locales and food porn. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren deliver images destined to excite the salivary glands of both gourmands and realtors without questioning whether all the images should be necessarily lovely. (I've worked in a kitchen. It's not always pretty.)

In among that gorgeousness, it is the film's older stars who deliver the film's more stirring moments. The film's emotional highlight comes when Hassan delivers a pigeon dish to Madame Mallory's kitchen as a peace-making gesture and is brutally rebuffed. (It is not Hassan's reaction shot to the event that rends the heart, but Madame's own confrontation with her own hatefulness.)

On the other side of the road, Om Puri maintains a captivating presence. Puri may have a face like a particularly well-battered asteroid, but he unfailingly delivers equal parts charm and gravitas.

Both actors nevertheless dwell in a movie that, while set in the highest echelons of cuisine, is strictly an Applebee's-level pop entertainment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2014 D1

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