Like the confection it’s named after, Lasse Hallström’s ’60s-set cinematic bonbon is every bit as sweet — and, unfortunately, every bit as sticky. Whether or not viewers end up licking their fingers to pick up the scraps (as many do through out the film’s admittedly easygoing two hours) depends on their tolerance for a different type of sugary sin: syrup.
The sentiment laid on as thick as the chocolate that practically dares viewers to to keep their mouths from watering. Similarly delectable is Juliette Binoche, radiant as ever in her first English-language role since winning the Oscar for “The English Patient.” She plays Vianne, a free spirit who, along with her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), blows into a deeply religious French village with the north wind and proceeds to shake up the status quo after opening up a chocolate shop during Lent. Despite some initial stares and whispers, the spell of “unrefined cacao with a pinch of chili pepper” predictably becomes too hard to resist for many, most prominently Vianne’s cranky landlady Armande (Judi Dench, phoning it in and snagging a Golden Globe nomination anyway), who is estranged from her daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss, severely out of her dramatic depth) and grandson (Aurelien Parent Koenig); and Josephine (Lena Olin), who is inspired to leave her abusive husband (Peter Stormare), the local café owner. Naturally, such sweet indulgence doesn’t amuse the uptight mayor (Alfred Molina), who will stop at nothing to close down la chocolaterie and put people back on the pious path. But will he see the light–er, taste the chocolate? Is Hershey based in Pennsylvania?
The story is already formulaic as it is, but someone came up with the bad idea of shoehorning in a romantic subplot for Vianne that feels just that–uncomfortably wedged in. A vaguely Irish river rat named Roux (Johnny Depp) stops by to drum up more prejudice in the already broadly drawn mayor, dance with and kiss Vianne, then depart as suddenly as he arrives, leaving nary a trace behind. But I suppose Hallström felt that with all the other types of warm fuzzies he covers–mother-daughter, grandmother-grandson, friend-friend–he might as well drop in good ol’ man-woman cuddlies between glamorous movie stars. I can understand and even appreciate Hallström’s aim of making a nice, fairy tale-like picture for the holiday season, but even the most warmhearted intentions can be too much, and “Chocolat” takes that extra step into overkill.