Variations on the theme have found their way into a broad assortment of popular films, from "The Sound of Music" and "The Piano" to the Oscar-winning "Antonia's Line" to such classics as "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Babette's Feast," in which the forbidden fruit of the flesh is given a gastronomical dimension. It's not hard, then, to see how Miramax could muster up such easy enthusiasm for "Chocolat," a tediously innocuous adaptation of Joanne Harris' novel about an attractive single mother (Juliette Binoche) whose enticing chocolate sweets, based on an ancient Mayan recipe, shake, rattle and roll the moral foundation of a sleepy rural village in post-war France.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules") with his customary pastoral reverence, "Chocolat" is, in concept, an appealing idea, even if it does liberally pillage its themes and constructs from a variety of older, better movies. Unfortunately, the fingerprints of the New-Look Miramax are smeared all over its genteel narrative, erasing any possible sign of offense and sanding the rough edges such that the entire exercise becomes agonizingly proper and respectable.
It's fairly clear that Miramax and Hallstrom were aiming for the same formula that succeeded so well with "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Cider House Rules," both ostensibly commercial films masquerading as art-house fare. But it's a thin formula that can only be stretched so far before the seams begin to show. And in the case of "Chocolat," the seams aren't just obvious, they're poorly stitched. The adversarial relationship between Binoche's Vianne Rocher and Alfred Molina's iron-fisted, moralistic town mayor, Comte de Reynaud, is contrived and cartoonish, while the various subplots (Judi Dench and Carrie-Anne Moss as an estranged mother and daughter and Lena Olin as the abused wife of drunken ogre Peter Stormare) rely purely on the strength of performance to outweigh the pat predictability of their outcomes.
On a positive note, the film is undeniably well-made and the performances consistently good, despite the plethora of bad French accents on the part of the English and American actors. Johnny Depp, prominently featured in ad art for the film, is a nice addition to the cast, but doesn't appear until nearly halfway through when a band of riverboat Irish gypsies appears to spruce up the increasingly obvious lack of dramatic tension. Some will also find a certain relish in the film's role-reversal of Olin's and Binoche's relationship in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
Ironically, the audience least likely to warm to "Chocolat" will probably be the art-house crowd that has long been Miramax's bread and butter--sophisticated filmgoers who will immediately spot the film for the dressed-up imposter that it is. Starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, Leslie Caron, Peter Stormare and Johnny Depp. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs. Produced by David Brown, Kit Golden and Leslie Holleran. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for a scene of sensuality and some violence. Running time: 121 min.