Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.


It's amazing how the phrase "Once upon a time…" will let a ham-handed storyteller get away with just about anything. Under the auspices of a simple fable, Lasse Hallström's sickly sweet Chocolat is free to engage in a lopsided war of values between happy, exuberant, liberal-minded candy-lovers and the grim, dogmatic sourpusses determined to spoil their good time. Its storybook trappings also allow Hallström and his screenwriters to goose up the shameless "enchantment" until their heavy glaze of magic realism begins to seem more like a force-fed confection. "A sly wind from the North" blows Juliette Binoche and her daughter (Ponette's wonderful Victoire Thivisol) into an idyllic late-'50s French village, where they open a chocolate shop that entices the citizenry but threatens to shake its moral foundation. Despite her ebullient charm, Binoche's status as a brazenly independent single mother with no interest in religion draws fire from the curmudgeonly mayor, played with greased-back hair and a twirlable mustache by Alfred Molina. As her business inflames sleepy libidos and provides refuge for other pariahs, including a battered wife (Lena Olin) fleeing her psychotic husband (Peter Stormare), Binoche's livelihood is threatened by Molina's brow-beating call for traditional morality. Johnny Depp rounds out the superb cast as a smoldering drifter who instantly connects with the rebellious heroine, but as the leader of a band of river gypsies, his presence only aggravates her problems with the mayor. Like Hallström's last effort, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat champions a progressive point of view, but there's not a trace of the earlier film's conflicted soul, embodied by a doctor and his protégé's opposing positions on performing abortions. Who in the audience is ready to deny the joie de vivre of peaceful revelers who insist on pouring chocolate sauce over everything they eat? As food porn, Chocolat lingers on seductive waves and ripples of milk chocolate, but limited to variations on a single foodstuff, it can't offer the more delectable spread of Like Water For Chocolate or Big Night. Good-natured and emotionally generous to a fault, Hallström's films have a special affinity for quirky misfits and outsiders, but his best work, such as My Life As A Dog and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, tempers his fanciful nature with hard doses of reality. Light and determinedly insubstantial, Chocolat adds nothing to an arthouse subgenre that's beginning to play itself out.

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