Take Footloose and Like Water for Chocolate, steep the combo in a heaping helping of corn syrup, and you'll come out with the sticky, sickly-sweet romantic cautionary tale Chocolat. The Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallström helms this adaptation of the best-selling novel by Joanne Harris, and delivers yet another pretty package of tempered social messages -- this time preaching about social tolerance instead of abortion.
Set against the idyllic backdrop of a quaint puritanical village in the French countryside, mysterious Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, dressed in identical Red Riding Hood outfits, literally blow into town "on the North Wind." Within days, the duo brazenly opens a magical chocolaterie across the street -- gasp -- from the church, and on the first week of Lent, no less. Vianne -- who comes off as a 50's-era Erin Brockovich sporting low-cut tops and bright red stilettos -- is turning the townsfolk on to her sweets, which a la Pleasantville miraculously inspire increased sex drives, feminist awakenings, familial reconciliation and even criminal rehabilitation. Soon, the town's prudish mayor launches a campaign to drive the sin-inducing shop out of business.
As if the girl-against-God story doesn't hit you over the head with enough meaning, along comes a swarthy band of Irish "river rats," headed up by the Blues guitar-playing, ponytailed Roux (Johnny Depp), to stir the xenophobic waters even further in the tiny hamlet. This Erin gypsy bad boy with a heart of gold finds an ally in fellow ne'er-do-well Vianne. She's a little bit country, he's a little bit rock and roll, and romance ensues.
But regardless of its good intentions, Chocolat wastes the talents of a great cast. Juliette Binoche manages to eke out a little dignity among Vianne's folklorish jibberish, and Judi Dench lends weight to her role as a local diabetic curmudgeon. However, all of these otherwise adept actors must deliver their lines in French-accented English, which comes off as a chintzy device to remind the audience that, hey, the movie's set in France -- and perhaps also to explain the lack of an "e" at the end of the title.
Plus, the story has some serious problems of its own. The only reason given for Vianne's obsessive nomadic tendencies is that her foolish French dad married a wild-eyed Mayan woman who instilled the need to blaze a trail across Europe, leaving cavities and heightened libidos in her wake. Of course, things all wrap up rather neatly in the end, something that becomes very apparent less than halfway into the film, and there's even a Disney-esque treat to close the picture that's sure to incite a few groans.
Of course, Chocolat will be ideal fare for the Oprah's Book Club crowd, and will surely be a great pick for seeing with mom over the holidays or maybe a cute first date. Just be warned; Chocolat is more Russell Stover than Godiva.
The extras on the Chocolat DVD are about as saccharine. A feature-length commentary track not only gives us Lasse Hallstrom to drone on, we also get tidbits provided by no fewer than three producers (I'd settle for, hmmmm, none). The deleted scenes are totally bizarre -- mostly fragments of 20 seconds or so that make little sense out of context and appear identical to scenes that are actually in the film. A bit of a waste.