The Mistress of Spices wants badly to be a whimsical foodcentric romance along the lines of Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate or Lasse Hallström's Chocolat. Instead, this surprisingly bland tale is more laughable than lilting.
Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai portrays the titular mistress of spices, Tilo. Abducted by bandits at a young age when it is learned that she can foresee the future, the child ends up in the care of a mysterious old woman (Zohra Sehgal) who teaches little girls about the power of - you guessed it - spices. Tilo grows up to be a beautiful young woman and is dispatched to San Francisco, a city that the old woman evidently believes is deprived of mysticism. In a smartly furnished "spice bazaar," Tilo goes about plying her craft, using her second sight and knowledge of spices to heal whatever ails her customers, whether it be haunting memories or a reluctant love interest.
But good deeds do not come without sacrifice. Tilo is bound by a curious set of rules. She cannot use the power of the spices for herself, leave her spice store (an inconvenience that must make grocery shopping a bitch) or touch the flesh of another. Hell, the rules of Fight Club make more sense.
Then the spice girl meets a handsome architect named Doug (Dylan McDermott), and suddenly a smitten Tilo is second-guessing this whole spice-mistress business. Against her better judgment, she compromises the rules and, in the process, pisses off the spices.
Yes, that's right. She pisses off the spices lining the shelves of her store. What do you say about a movie in which the protagonist is reduced to interior conversations with a bunch of red chili peppers? "Spices, speak to me," Tilo wails after her customers begin to report all sorts of bad luck, "Is this the way you've chosen to punish me?" Such absurdity necessitates a certain amount of moxie, but a film had better be up to the task if it hopes to avoid looking ridiculous.
And Mistress of Spices isn't quite up for the challenge. Much of the movie is stagy and overly talky, an unfortunate byproduct of that pesky rule about Tilo not being able to leave her store. Dialogue is stilted and overwrought. And Dylan McDermott's Doug makes for a mighty vacuous love interest.
The movie marks the directorial debut of Paul Mayeda Berges, whose screenwriting credits include 2002's Bend It Like Beckham and 2004's Bride & Prejudice, both of which were directed by Berges' wife, Gurinder Chadha. That's not a shabby record, but here Berges pays more attention to the picture's visuals than he does a coherent narrative. The Mistress of Spices certainly looks great. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan saturates the film in a swirl of colors, with former Miss World Aishwarya Rai serving as pretty astonishing eye-candy in her own right.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is nearly flawless. Details are sharp, colors are vivid and skin tones are realistic. There are no noticeable defects such as pixilation or edge enhancement.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is hardly exceptional, but it is intermittently inventive and solid throughout. Subtitles are available in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
The Making of Mistress of Spices is a limp promotional featurette that clocks in at a merciful three minutes, 30 seconds. Also included is a theatrical trailer.
Rent Like Water for Chocolate instead.