Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Better Than Chocolate

By Russell Smith

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

D: Anne Wheeler; with Christina Cox, Karyn Dwyer, Wendy Crewson, Peter Outerbridge, Kevin Mundy, Marya Delver. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

As meltingly delicious as it is to the eyes, and as potent a sugar rush as it delivers to the libido, this endearing romantic confection delivers about as much real nutritive value as a pound of brandy cream truffles. And that's cool with me, at least when Wheeler (Bye Bye Blues) sticks to telling a juicy, disarmingly candid tale of young lust in the lesbian arts community of Vancouver, BC. Unfortunately, Peggy Thompson's overreaching script too often undercuts its own sexy, insouciant core, forcing it to share screen time with a host of subsidiary issues, including censorship, parent-child relationships, and homophobia. The main characters are Maggie (Dwyer), a twentyish gay-bookstore clerk, and her new squeeze, Kim (Cox), a footloose painter who lives in her used van. (Kim's van is the locale for the first of several gorgeously shot, electrically passionate sex scenes between the fresh-scrubbed pair.) Consistent with the timeworn tradition of humor about commitment-crazed lesbians, these two almost instantly fall for each other, pursuing their torrid affair under the oblivious nose of Maggie's mom (Crewson), who's moved in with her daughter after a painful divorce. Meanwhile, Maggie's randy younger bro (Mundy) is avidly bird-dogging Carla (Delver), an omnisexual co-worker from the bookstore, and her transgendered cabaret-singing pal, Judy (Outerbridge), is stewing with unrequited love for Maggie's uptight boss, Frances (MacDonald). Whew! These multiple plotlines churn up a sugary pink spume of romantic whimsy that, despite any real surprises, should keep viewers amused between the plentiful nude scenes. None of the cast necessarily strikes me as a surefire Oscar winner, but all are at least solid in their roles. Dwyer, in particular, nails her Felicity Takes a Walk on the Wild Side role with a charming turn as an earnest, big-hearted girl for whom no good intention goes unpunished. Wheeler couches all the action in a great-looking package of polished, highly imaginative imagery and brisk pacing that marks her as the equal (at least on the technical level) of 98 percent of her mainstream contemporaries. Wheeler's work is painstakingly crafted but also has an artless vivacity and sense of delight about it that could someday apply the final coup de grace to the myth of dour lesbian filmmaking. Trouble is, the aforementioned "serious" elements are not only too numerous but often register as contrived, halfhearted rehashes of familiar platitudes. The fact that most of the straight characters are nitwits, boors, thugs, or some combination thereof also weakens the story's passionate appeal for openheartedness. For all its flaws, Better Than Chocolate is a fair enough entertainment value -- certainly no less meritorious overall than, say, Runaway Bride. But, like many other films that have boasted both a high likability quotient and a positive social message, it seems to be getting a bit more credit than it really deserves. And as far as I'm concerned, it's no favor to allow a filmmaker of Anne Wheeler's obvious gifts to operate so far below peak efficiency.

2.5 Stars


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