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Review: '100-Ft Journey' has choice ingredients, but comes out bland and undercooked

Take one Oscar-winning British actress. Add an appealing supporting cast. Lather on the picturesque French countryside. Sprinkle liberally with gorgeous food shots, from bubbling, spicy Indian delicacies to perfectly composed French plates of pigeon and truffles.

And then heap on a heavy serving of corn.

What is it about recent food movies — Jon Favreau's "Chef," and now Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hundred-Foot Journey" — that, despite their virtues, they have to be so darned corny, so dewy-eyed, with everything tied up in a feel-good bow at the end? It's as if all that great food on set had this tranquilizing effect, sending everyone off, sated and smiling, with great life lessons learned, into a rosy sunset.

That's not to say there isn't a lot going for "Journey" (as there was for the enjoyable "Chef"), an adaptation of the novel by Richard Morais about an Indian family that opens a restaurant in a French village. Besides the above-mentioned virtues, notably the always delightful Helen Mirren and the entertaining Indian actor Om Puri, it has the absurdly good-looking couple of Manish Dayal, as a gifted young Indian chef, and Charlotte Le Bon, as the gorgeous sous-chef who teaches him the joys of haute cuisine (and not much more — this is a PG-rated movie).

It also has a script by the talented Steven Knight, and a score by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman ("Slumdog Millionaire"). Oh, and it's produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

Given all these lovely ingredients, then, why is the final product so bland — and, not to lay on too many cooking metaphors, reductive? A couple of scenes feel borrowed from what remains the most original food movie of all, the animated "Ratatouille."

We begin in India, where we meet the food-loving Kadam family. During a night of political unrest, their restaurant is torched by a mob. Having lost everything, they end up in France, where, driving along, their brakes fail and they tumble into the quaint village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Family patriarch Papa (Puri) decides this is where they'll open their new restaurant, Maison Mumbai.

Only one problem: Across the street — 100 feet, actually — is the Michelin-starred Le Saule Pleureur, run by Madame Mallory, for whom the word "prickly" seems too mellow. Madame is not happy, first because the intruders play loud music, and second, because, well, she's a snooty Frenchwoman.

So pointedly snooty, in fact, that we instantly know the movie's main plot development will be the gradual un-snootening (that may not be a word) of Mme. Mallory. Just as clear: The battle between her and Papa, which involves filling official complaints to the town's mayor, will soften into something much sweeter.

Meanwhile, Papa's handsome son Hassan (Dayal) is becoming enamoured of French cooking, helped along by Mme. Mallory's fetching sous-chef Marguerite (Le Bon). It is Marguerite who, when the family's brakes failed, stopped on the road to help, stunned them with her supermodel beauty, gave them rope to tow their car, and whipped up a fabulous meal in minutes. (This ALWAYS happens with road accidents in France.)

Their budding relationship, though, plays second fiddle to their professional goals. Mme. Mallory, recognizing Hassan's talent, asks him to join her kitchen. Suddenly, they're competitors. But Hassan is the clear star. His talent takes him as far as Paris, where he becomes the chef of a flashy restaurant that practices molecular gastronomy. Suddenly, Hassan becomes edgy and hip. He's profiled in top magazines.

But is he truly happy? Can he forget the quaint pleasures of the village where he started, or the gorgeous Marguerite, or the soulful pleasures of simple food?

For the answers, you'll have to see the film, and to be sure, it will be a pleasurable two hours — though lacking, cinematically, in a key ingredient that Hassan, in fact, knows a lot about:

A little spice.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey," a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality." Running time: 122 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

_

Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

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