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BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Wendy Crewson, Karyn Dwyer, Christina Cox, Peter Outerbridge
Director:  Anne Wheeler
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Trimark
Features:  Director Commentary, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  December 28, 1999

Film **1/2

Better Than Chocolate is a film with many irons in the fire, but it’s hard to fault it for that.  After all, there have been so few films of its nature to reach any kind of mainstream audience.  You get the feeling that the filmmakers had a lot to say, and were reluctant to trim down any part of it.

It’s a film that has quietly garnered quite a reputation for itself.  To be honest, after hearing all the hype, I have to say it wasn’t nearly as shocking as I thought it would be.  But I’m sure for other moviegoers, it might actually be more so.

I appreciated the fact that the movie, like many of my favorites, took me inside a new world that I knew very little about.  And the way the film presents it, the lesbian lifestyle is its own world, where gay women are completely the norm, and the few heterosexual characters that breeze through the picture are seen as somewhat lost and bewildered in it.  It was a touch I liked.  And, naturally, there are also those who aren’t quite so friendly to the idea.

The picture begins with a comic premise:  Maggie (Dwyer) has just met the woman of her dreams in the free spirited Kim (Cox).  Kim has just had her van, which also happens to be her home, impounded.  She therefore moves in with Maggie, which would be fine, except Maggie’s mother Lila (Crewson) has just gone through a messy divorce and has nowhere else to go, so she ends up moving in with Maggie, too.  Lila is confused and vulnerable, to say the least, and has no idea that her daughter is in a gay relationship, and Maggie’s decision to keep it quiet for the time being might just cause more trouble down the road than being truthful.

The film’s most interesting character is Judy (Outerbridge), a transgender woman who has tried unsuccessfully to maintain a relationship with her parents, who have all but disowned her for her decision to be a woman.  She instinctively understands Lila’s pain, and in the film’s best scene, she shows up at her door, and the two open up and become fast friends.  On one level, it’s a moving, touching scene about two lonely people reaching out to one another, and finding strength within themselves to fight against the hurt.  On an entirely different level, the scene is a bit funny, because Lila has no idea that Judy was once a man named Jeremy.

The main problem with the movie is that despite some good scenes, and good ideas, it can’t resist the temptation to delve into rather campy comedy from time to time.  There’s a nightclub they all frequent called…get this…the Cat’s Ass, and it looks like something out of John Waters’ worst dream.  It’s here where Judy gets some release by singing a song called “I’m Not a (bleep)-ing Drag Queen”.  Another scene in the club features black lit women singing a tune called “I’m in Love With Julie Christie”.  Moments like those go on a bit too long, and sap the film of its momentum and any kind of emotion it might have been achieving up to that point.  Then, there’s what is supposed to be a scene of sexual liberation, as Lila discovers a box of “toys”.  I say supposed to be, because it reminded me of Joan Allen’s famous bathtub scene in Pleasantville, which was both a little funny and a little moving.  Here, the entire sequence is played for cheap laughs, as Lila goes crazy with the remote control, and ends up scouring for more batteries.

Of the film’s other sexually oriented scenes—and there are a few—all I can say is that some of them do seem borderline gratuitous, but then again, you could say that about a lot of romantic films, gay, straight or otherwise. 

In the end, the film tries to make a last ditch effort to make a statement about something else, so it chooses homophobia as the most obvious target.  Which would have been fine, if the movie had been about intolerance and hatred, but it never was.  As I mentioned, it seemed like just one other thing the filmmakers wanted to say, so they tacked it on.

So, on the one hand, you get statements about parental acceptance, emotional healing, homophobia, and learning to be happy with who you are.  On the other hand, you get a movie that so indulges every possible comic inkling, that I fear the audiences may not walk away with the right overall impression.  It doesn’t help that some of the women, like Judy, Maggie and Kim, are portrayed as real people, and others, like the bookstore owner Frances, who constantly frets about the confiscation of her pornographic books with funny titles, and Carla, the kinky bisexual friend, are played as caricatures.  Then there’s Lila, who goes from one to the other throughout the duration of the movie.  It makes you wonder what, if anything, the film is trying to make a case for.

In the end, the film seems a bit unfocused, and without an overall sense of purpose, which sadly wastes, to a certain degree, the many aspects of it that do work, and are wonderfully good.  Somewhere in the haze of it all, I am certain, is a strong, powerful, funny-without-being-silly movie that might have had a chance at capturing and touching the hearts of audiences from all walks of life, but here, only traces of that film are to be found.

Video **

This is a decidedly uninspired effort from Trimark.  From beginning to end, the picture is soft throughout, with a definite lack of sharpness and detail.  The lighting of the film is very amateurish, which doesn’t help the overall image quality.  There are countless instances of glares from too much light, improper shadows from poorly placed lights, and despite the fact that it looks as though many scenes were constructed to have a wide range of color, the lighting often detracts from the effect.  There is also noticeable bleeding and a bit of grain from time to time.  The best single shot in the film is a sunlit exterior, without a cloud in the sky.  The sun lights objects perfectly on the outside.  Inside, you really need people who know what they’re doing. 

Audio **

The soundtrack is a serviceable but not particularly noteworthy stereo mix, without a lot of dynamic range.  No real complaints or praises.

Features **

The disc contains a commentary track with director Anne Wheeler (which, for some reason, is almost twice as loud as the actual movie soundtrack) and a theatrical trailer.

Summary:

Better Than Chocolate may have had the benefit of stirring up some controversy for itself, but in the end, it’s likely to be a film that slips through the cracks of cinema history and remains unremembered.  Despite its many praiseworthy aspects, the faults of the movie really pin it down and keep it from reaching the heights that were within its grasp.