“‘Chocolat’ Tastes Great, Less Filling”
by Scott Mantz

Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp are one tasty morsel in “Chocolat”

Now that football season is almost over, it’s up to another season–awards season–to pick up the ball. And what would any awards season be without those Dallas Cowboys of prestigious filmmakers, Bob and Harvey Weinstein over at Miramax Pictures? Every year since 1992, they’ve had at least one of their movies nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and in 1997 and 1999, they won the award for “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love” respectively.

Thanks to mostly poor reviews and a sick return at the box office, the Matt Damon-Penelope Cruz starrer “All The Pretty Horses” wound up having the cinematic equivalent of a broken leg, which means that it will most likely be shot out of the Oscar competition. Fortunately, where one door closes, another one opens, and that’s where “Chocolat” comes in. While the film may be packaged in a pretty box with some downright delicious talent, the film nonetheless proves that too much of the sweet stuff can lose its taste after a while.

For centuries, not much has changed in the tiny French village of Lansquenet, but when a mysterious stranger named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) sets up shop to sell her unique brand of chocolates, there goes the neighborhood. Some of the townspeople are rejuvenated by her chocolate’s euphoric qualities, but others, including the town’s stuffy mayor (Alfred Molina), will stop at nothing until Vianne’s shop is closed and she leaves town for good.

“Chocolat” certainly has all the right ingredients of a Miramax recipe. The film stars Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, both Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winners, and it is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Cider House Rules.” How appropriate then that “Chocolat” has so much in common with that film. Both movies are lush with period-defining detail, and both movies are rife with messages about opening your mind, embracing change, and growing beyond your environment to become a better person.

As expected, Juliette Binoche puts in a fine performance. She’s sensual and sexy, but she blends in an air of intelligence and vulnerability to give the film a strong emotional core. Johnny Depp may not show up until more than halfway through the film, but he gives an effectively understated turn as the wandering gypsy who gives Binoche a run for her money. Their screen time together may be limited, but they still manage to evoke some surprisingly good chemistry.

The film is rounded out by a delectable amount of supporting players, led by stellar character actor Alfred Molina as the town’s narrow-minded mayor. From the moment they meet, he feels threatened by Binoche, but he ultimately realizes that no amount of protection from the outside world can keep the element of change from effecting the village. Judi Dench plays a crusty old grandmother who softens up once she gets a taste of Binoche’s goods, while Lena Olin plays a battered wife who gains the confidence and the strength to leave her abusive husband.

Ultimately, “Chocolat” is predictable and contrived, and it never fully blossoms into the emotionally gripping film that it wants to be. Nevertheless, it is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth as a charming, cute, and quirky comedy with a message. For all the advise and wisdom that Vianne preaches, she ultimately realizes how important it is to practice what you preach. As long as you take that with you when you leave the theater, then you’ll come away fully satisfied without ever gaining a pound.