While there is no shortage of Hollywood movies about food and the people who make it possible, the summer box office season tends to be more closely associated with aliens and action heroes than brisket or boeuf bourguignon. Yet, this season’s crop has produced three food-centric films of some note. Coincidentally, the productions all tackle—with varying degrees of success—the theme of food as a mechanism for bringing people together.
Having seen all three movies: “Chef,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and “The Lunchbox,” I wanted to share some thoughts on each. (I had hoped to include a fourth movie with this theme—”The Trip to Italy” (Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to 2010’s “The Trip”) but it is not yet available in the United States.)
In addition to offering a quick synopsis and a few critical thoughts, I’ve also commented on each movie’s “foodgasm factor”—perhaps best described as the sense of unapologetic delight you’ll experience as a result of seeing mouth-watering meals on the silver screen. Lastly, I’ve offered some humble opinions as to which Portland-area food purveyors you might visit before or after seeing your film of choice in order to get the most impact out of your moviegoing/dining experiences.
Synopsis: Directed by and starring Jon Favreau, “Chef” is the story of Carl Casper, a prominent Los Angeles chef who—in the wake of conflict with his restaurant’s owner and a public battle with an esteemed food critic—loses his job and retreats to Miami where he is inspired to start a food truck. In the process, his passion for cooking and his relationship with his young son are both renewed.
Verdict: Though the synopsis (parsed together from notes on the film’s official site) seems rather straightforward, the narrative of “Chef” is all over the map. At times, its a road movie. At others, its a father-and-son bonding movie. Crammed in there somewhere is a good bit of a commentary about the relationship between creative integrity and financial success. But wait, there’s more, including a sub-plot involving social media, and how it can be used as a force for both good and evil. And there’s certainly no shortage of eye candy and wish fulfillment: the film is loaded with shots of gorgeous food, iconic locations, stunning kitchens and beautiful people (the pudgy Carl’s love interests include Scarlett Johansson and Sophia Vergara).
And yet, largely by virtue of the movie’s earnest and upbeat tone, impressive cinematography and charismatic actors, it all works.
What I enjoyed most about “Chef” is in how thoughtfully it conveys the idea that its okay for people to have fun with food, whether that appreciation manifests as referring to yourself as a “foodie,” reading or writing a food blog, or posting an image of a great meal to Twitter or Instagram. In an age where it seems like there’s always some third-rate comedian lashing out at others for the awful crime of (gasp!) being enthusiastic about food—“Oh, you take pictures of your food? You write a blog? That’s cute.”—the sincerity of “Chef” is a wonderful change of pace.
Foodgasm Factor: 5 out of 5. There are countless shots of drool-worthy dishes ranging from a postcoital preparation of Pasta Aglio e Olio to a mouth-watering Cubano sandwich (which features prominently in the second half of the film).
Pair It With: Patronize any of the Portland area food trucks. Or, better yet, stop by The Cheese Iron and grab a couple of Cubanos—the best version of this sandwich I’ve encountered in Maine—and a bottle of wine. It probably can’t hurt to ask if they have any Scarlett Johansson available, too. (If not, soothe your heartache with a sea salt chocolate chip cookie.)
Find “Chef” At: I was bummed to discover that “Chef” just recently exited the Nickelodeon Theater after a months-long run. But there’s good news. The film’s distributor, Open Road films, is re-releasing “Chef” in theaters on August 29th. Whether the Nickelodeon—or other local theaters—will carry it remains to be seen. If not, it should be available on DVD and iTunes this fall.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Synopsis: Adapted from Richard Morais’s novel of the same name, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” tells the story of Hasan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a self-taught chef whose family—which has been forced—frequently and sometimes violently—to relocate around India and Europe—sets up shop in rural France, directly across the road from a Michelin-decorated restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur. The Kadam family initially conflicts with the competition (Helen Mirren), but, over time, the two restaurants learn to co-exist and thrive.
Verdict: The only surprising thing about “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is that it isn’t a Walt Disney production. (Though its worth noting that Disney had its own trope-filled flick about transplanted Indians earlier this year in “Million Dollar Arm”). That said, you won’t be the least bit shocked when you learn that Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg are producers here, or that the movie was directed by Lasse Hallström, whose career—with one or two exceptions—has been devoted to directing sentimental tear-jerkers that might brighten your afternoon but leave no lasting impact. (That said, I gotta give him credit for the one about the dog… it destroys me every single time.)
Anyway, if you’ve seen the trailer for “The Hundred-Foot Journey” you’ll be able to reliably predict every beat of this picture, right down to its feel-good, “everyone is happy” conclusion. Helen Mirren dons a French accent, but is otherwise playing the same stuffy-yet-loveable curmudgeon role that she’s been typecast in for over a decade now (and whenever Judi Dench isn’t available). Likewise, the Kadam family is the same quirky and unthreatening family of ethnic émigrés we’ve seen portrayed on film a dozen times over in half as many years.
This is not to say that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is bad or offensive in any way. Its not. Odds are good that if you thought “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (the Europeans-meet-Indians-and-comedy-and-love-ensue forerunner to this film) was just fine, you’ll feel the same way about this movie with its overseas locales and interchangeable British dames. And there’s no shame in that, as long as you also realize that Hallström’s movie is also not the least bit remarkable in any way. Look, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is like that retirement party you find yourself attending at an Applebee’s for some co-worker you barely know. You may well go and have a fine time. You’ll nibble on some mozzarella sticks, toss back a couple of drinks and get a little silly. But you won’t remember anything about it six months from now.
Foodgasm Factor: 3.5 out of 5. There’s no shortage of shots—and discussion—of food in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” but much of it is limited to brief glimpses of ingredients being foraged, chopped, sliced or stirred. The looks at finished dishes, such as boeuf bourguignon or a perfect omelette, felt fleeting compared to those in “Chef.” Even the climactic reveal of a sea urchin dish jointly prepared by two major characters—the physical manifestation of the themes the movie has been pounding the audience’s heads for two hours—gets short shrift as the camera provides the audience with the briefest of looks before it sails right on by and out of view. (While I haven’t read Richard Morais’ novel, I’m told that the descriptions of food in the book are far more impressive than they were rendered on film.)
Pair It With: Though “The Hundred-Foot Journey” as an exercise in filmmaking, is about as substantive and memorable as the aforementioned meal at Applebee’s, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a meal at Petite Jacqueline.
Find “The Hundred-Foot Journey” At: It is currently playing at the Nickelodeon, as well as most of the Cinemagic locations in the Portland area.
Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s famed dabbawalla meal delivery system (which, according to the film’s trailer, has been studied by Harvard University and boasts something in the neighborhood of a 99.9999% success rate in terms of uniting meals with their intended recipients), “The Lunchbox” concerns the story of two strangers—Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a neglected middle class housewife & mother, and Saajan (Irrfan Khan, best known to American audiences for his roles in “Life of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire”) a lonely widower on the verge of retirement—who form a deep bond after he mistakenly receives a lunchbox, along with a note hidden inside, intended for Ila’s disinterested husband.
Verdict: Though it lacks the joyous frivolity of “Chef” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” “The Lunchbox” (from first time Director Ritesh Batra) is by far the best of these films, and easily one of the finest movies of 2014. Though there is a bit of humor to be found in “The Lunchbox,” the comedy has a quiet, understated quality to it. And with much of a film functioning as a meditation on loneliness and our profound longing for connection, “The Lunchbox” isn’t afraid to go to some dark places. One of my favorite scenes takes place midway through the film, after Ila has confided to Saajan in one of her letters that she is despondent over husband’s neglect. The next morning, Saajan hears a news report on the radio of a woman who has leapt to her death—her child in her arms—from atop a nearby skyscraper. At work, with the lunch hour approaching, we see a look of quiet terror wearing on his face as he anxiously prays for the arrival of the dabbawalla with his lunch, which will confirm that Ila is not the woman in the radio report. (The payoff to this scene is equally wonderful.)
While the theme of people being brought together by food is most obviously represented by the friendship Ila and Saajan share, “The Lunchbox” also explores the idea in more subversive ways. For instance, it is at the moment that Saajan offers to share part of his lunch with an earnest young trainee (who can only afford to eat an apple and a banana for lunch) that we realize the older man has opened his heart up to the prospect of friendship. Meanwhile, Ila regularly converses with an upstairs neighbor, dubbed “Auntie.” Unseen for the entire film, “Auntie” regularly sends down via a tethered basket—as if from the heavens—cooking ingredients, accompanied by words of advice.
While “The Lunchbox” may not deliver a Hollywood-style ending that American audiences seem to crave, I found the film and its conclusion to be a thoroughly, deeply satisfying experience.
Foodgasm Factor: 4 out of 5. We’ll grade this one on a curve since “The Lunchbox” takes place in a world that is more about “eating to live” rather than “living to eat.” While the meals Ila cooks-up for Saajan are not on par with the culinary masterpieces seen in “Chef” and the “Hundred-Foot Journey,” (she is, after all, just trying to make lunch for the poor guy) they are quite beautiful to look at. As a foodie, much of the pleasure here for me was watching Saajan’s face as he would open his four-tiered tiffin, sniff at it carefully and admire the contents of each of the compartments before lovingly dishing small spoonfuls of each out on to his plate to enjoy.
Pair It With: While I possess a neophyte’s understanding of the regional distinctions in Indian cuisine, South Portland’s TAJ seems to be the state’s best-reviewed Indian restaurant. Or, if you’re up for a drive, I’ve also read good things about Tulsi in Kittery. Then again, maybe the spirit of “The Lunchbox” is best embodied by a small note tucked inside a lovingly-made homemade lunch for a child, spouse or loved one to enjoy. If you don’t have any curry-spiced cauliflower nearby, I’m sure a peanut butter sandwich will do.
Find It At: “The Lunchbox” is playing at only a handful of theaters around the United States, including a couple in Massachusetts (see the film’s official site for current listings). That said, it is available to rent on iTunes.