It seems like only yesterday that movies dealing with gay and lesbian life were synonymous with extravagant displays of gloom and doom. From the suicides of The Children's Hour (1961) and Advise & Consent (1962) to the serial killers of Cruising (1980) and Basic Instinct (1992), same-sexuality was no fun -- in the worst possible way. But what a difference a decade makes. As Jim Fall's Trick -- which opened here just last week -- and now Better Than Chocolate serve to show, gay and lesbian movies are fast becoming party time for habitués of independent showcases. This is all well and good -- particularly in a festival setting when crowd-pleasing is a principal goal. But over the long, long haul, it would be nice if filmmakers learned to hold back on the giddiness and hone in on character a bit more. And that's certainly the case with a soufflé like Better Than Chocolate.
Directed by Anne Wheeler from a script by co-producer Peggy Thompson, this Canadian-set ensemble piece centers on a bookstore clerk (and budding performance artist) named Maggie (Karyn Dwyer), who falls in love with a traveling sketch artist named Kim (Christina Cox) and is about to settle down to a life of pure lesbian bliss. Then her emotionally flighty mother, Lila (Wendy Crewson), arrives with her brother Paul (Kevin Mundy) in tow, having just discovered that her second marriage has fallen apart. As Maggie has never come out to her mother, because her mother has sexual and romantic hang-ups of her own, comic complications ensue of a sort handled much more ambitiously in Monika Treut's 1991 comedy My Father Is Coming.
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Happily, however, Maggie doesn't stay at center stage. For just when her story runs out of steam (which is to say, about ten minutes in), we're introduced to Judy (Peter Outerbridge), a transsexual lesbian cabaret artist besotted with Bernice (Beatrice Zeilinger), the high-strung "femme" who runs the bookstore where Maggie works.
Got it? Good.
Better Than Chocolate.
No one in the cast can be faulted for his or her performance. Crewson in particular makes the most of her part, transforming the annoying mother into a far more amusing character than she might have been. And Wheeler and her collaborators deserve a special round of applause for the film's several very attractively staged musical numbers -- particularly the all-lesbian tribute to Julie Christie and the transsexual diva's big showstopper, "I'm Not a Fucking Drag Queen." But even a subplot involving the heroine's brother's adventure with a butt-plug-wielding bisexual woman has more zing to it than the central story.
I'm sure there are people who won't agree -- particularly if they've been starved for lightweight lesbian fun. But for those looking for more, they'll have to tell the filmmaking chefs to put something other than Chocolate on the menu.