Presumably, you’ll be able to see The Hundred-Foot Journey without sitting through the intro that preceded preview screenings. Lucky you.

In the short teaser, producers Steven Spielberg and the “a-ma-zing!” Oprah Winfrey talked about the flick’s cross-cultural significance. This was obviously meant to whet viewers’ appetites, but it could well have backfired by making Journey sound like a self-righteous sermon.

Fortunately, the new film from director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat) manages to leaven its message with humor. Even more fortunately, the humor avoids the cultural stereotypes that marked, for example, the recent Million Dollar Arm.

“Papa” (Om Puri), son Hassan (Manish Dayal) and the rest of their family are depicted as intelligent but lovably quarrelsome human beings who happen to operate a restaurant in Mumbai, India. In the opening scenes, Hassan’s mother is shown infusing him with the love of cooking before a tragic fire takes her life and forces the family to relocate.

A combination of bad luck and happy accidents eventually lead the clan to a picturesque French city, where Papa stumbles upon a vacant restaurant across the street from the exclusive eatery run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Despite his offspring’s warnings that French people don’t like Indian food, he buys the property and proceeds to open the family’s new restaurant.

Thus begins the promised cross-cultural clash between the widow, with her classic French cuisine, and the foreign newcomers, with their exotic, spice-heavy dishes. Adding a romantic garnish to the proceedings, Hassan quickly becomes friendly with Margueritte (Charlotte Le Bon), a young sous chef who works in Madame Mallory’s kitchen and shares his culinary ambitions.

For at least the first two courses of this food-centered film, it’s well served by Steven Knight’s script (which is based on a novel by Richard C. Morais). The clashes between Papa and Madame Mallory are cleverly entertaining right up to the point when they trigger a sobering episode of jingoistic ugliness.

All the while, cinematographer Linus Sandgren fills the screen with tranquil images of the French countryside and luscious close-ups of fine cuisine. (Don’t see the flick on an empty stomach!) It’s true that a disconcertingly large number of big moments are accompanied by either rain or fireworks, but at least Sandgren photographs them well.

The film also is well served by its actors. The gravel-voiced Puri plays Papa with puckish gravitas, while Mirren brings humanity to Madame Mallory, who in lesser hands could have turned into a caricature of patrician French womanhood. As Hassan and Margueritte, the appealing Dayal and Le Bon rely on meaningful looks more than their meager dialogue to suggest that their friendship has romantic potential.

Backing up the cast’s efforts, the score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) perfectly complements every emotional highpoint.

By the third course, however, things begin to lose their flavor. A series of developments take one character in an uninteresting new direction and leave him there so long that we don’t really care whether he ever returns. At about the same time, two other characters undergo a transformation that we would enjoy if we were privy to it, but it mostly happens off-screen.

To be sure, the final course is as sweet as any dessert, but it would be more appetizing if the previous half-hour hadn’t left us with a sour aftertaste.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)


The Hundred-Foot Journey, rated PG, opens Friday (Aug. 8) at theaters nationwide.