“The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Reviewed: Weak Sauce.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEYLasse Hallström is an odd duck. One the one hand there’s his gift for nuanced views of complex human relationships, such as the small-town siblings in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) or the orphan abortionist bobbing for normalcy in The Cider House Rules (1999). But give him a screenplay with raw, gooey sentiment – say, the three-hankie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or either of the two (two!) Nicholas Sparks adaptations he’s made – and his directorial integrity melts like superfluous butter on a hot croissant.

I’m sad to say Hallström is firmly in croissant mode for The Hundred-Foot Journey (rated PG), the third and least effective food-is-life saga to be released this year after Chef and The Lunchbox. And I mean, I really am sad. The ingredients of this soufflé – the central premise, the picturesque visuals, the thoughtful foodie footage – are all top-notch. It’s just that the chef behind the camera doesn’t seem to know how to combine them into much more than a flavorful flop.

Based on a 2010 novel by Richard Morais (and produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey), Journey follows a displaced Indian family as political unrest forces them from the subcontinent to Europe. Hassan (Manish Dayai) and his siblings lost their mother in the turmoil that sent them packing, but not before she spent Hassan’s childhood training him to cook. Now he’s the star attraction of their traveling restaurant – one that promises to bring authentic Indian cuisine to the south of France, in one of those sleepy-but-elegant villages seemingly tailor made for a cinematic close-up.

Their only problem is the neighbors, or rather one in particular: Literally across the street from the site of Maison Mumbai is a Michelin-starred classical French eatery, run with imperial precision by the frosty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who doesn’t take kindly to ruffians infiltrating her ambience with A.R. Rahman music, Taj Mahal cutouts and the smell of curry. Mirren’s cut-from-granite demeanor here is old hat for the actress – and telegraphed early on as being the first stage in a transformation. Like the haughty critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), she’s been created so we can watch her get friendlier.

And so she does – but does it have to take so long? The film’s two-hour-plus running time is due to Hallström’s failure to designate an A-plot. What’s the movie about? Is it Hassan’s ascension in the culinary world, as he becomes one of France’s most celebrated chefs even while pining for the comely sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who works for Madame Mallory? Is it the furious competition between the two restaurants, epitomized by a series of comic set-tos between Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri)? Their clash of culinary cultures is bracing and zesty, but there’s only one place for it to go – and every time these two master actors gain some onscreen traction, the director runs away to scenes of Hassan cooking, or more shots of the postcard-perfect countryside.

If nothing else The Hundred-Foot Journey works as food porn, with abundant cooking sequences and sumptuous arrays of sauces, noshes and platings. The film’s primary conceit (even if the director doesn’t always have faith in it) is Hassan’s innate culinary skills, which he approaches with an almost beatific calm – he’s possessed by the spirit of his mother, I suppose, and channeling her memory as he inhales the aroma of her legendary spices. The trouble is, I didn’t believe it. Dayai is too inexpressive to connect with the material; the script simply asks us to accept that he’s capable of his meteoric rise. The gradual détente between Puri and Mirren’s characters is similarly incredible – as is the fact that Maison Mumbai would succeed in the first place, for that matter. Hassan’s siblings do a much better job of explaining the roadblocks to their success in the first reel than the film ever does of explaining how they overcome them.

Ultimately, there’s not enough meat on this bone to satisfy anyone looking for more than a great-looking table setting. The only thing The Hundred-Foot Journey made me hungry for is a better film.

(IMAGE: Manish Dayai and Helen Mirren in The Hundred-Foot Journey. Photo courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures.)