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A little bit of sweetness is OK, but ...

Gooey 'Chocolat' hard to swallow

graphic

In this story:

Chocolate in, church out

Enough already!


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(CNN) -- Lasse Hallstrom's "Chocolat" opens with a narrator gently intoning the words, "Once upon a time..." That can be viewed as a come-on or a warning, depending on your tolerance of Hallstrom's sometimes overbearing brand of sticky-sweet sentimentality.

"Chocolat" is a subdued food-for-the-soul picture on the order of "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992), with a dash of Johnny Depp's effortless charisma added to the recipe. It's a pleasant enough movie, and features a sturdy, workman-like cast. But Hallstrom, who gets more sticky-sweet with each new release, needs to learn that too much candy can lead to a tummy ache.

It's 1959. The setting is a quiet little French village that prides itself on an all-encompassing sense of moderation. The locals aren't having much fun.

Their zest for life, if they've ever had any, has been almost subsumed by a fear of the Almighty. An especially hard-core strain of Catholicism has turned them into nothing more than well-behaved survivalists. Their earthly existence is viewed as a trial to endure, rather than a physical celebration of shared spirit. The town's most-prominent citizen, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), sees to it that everyone stays committed to a strict moral code. Think of Reynaud as an anti-cheerleader with a crucifix.

Chocolate in, church out

Then, one day during the Catholic fasting period of Lent, a dazzling breath of fresh air blows into town. Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) is a chocolatier who rents a storefront from Amande Voizin (Judi Dench), a crabby old woman whose emotionally stifled daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) works as a secretary for Reynaud. Vianne and her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), pretty unbelievably convert the dilapidated building into a gorgeous chocolate shop, full of vividly painted murals and strange statues.

Vianne, it turns out, is a veritable Michelangelo with chocolate. She creates an astounding array of sensual experiences for the natives, many of whom drop their church-encouraged cowering to sample her delectable mysteries.

Reynaud is appalled that the town's newest resident has the gall to open such a shop during a time of atonement. But Vianne, who somehow conjures love spells with her chocolate, isn't about to back down. Her little business quickly turns into a battlefront, with Reynaud serving as the ever-attacking enemy.

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Vianne's unspoken goal is to liberate her customer's flagging spirits through the magic of fancy bonbons. First, she rescues a battered woman (Lena Olin) from her violent husband (professional lout Peter Stormare), by putting her to work in the shop. She also nurses her ailing landlady, Amande, back to a worldly vigor. Even though Amande's tight-laced daughter forbids her to see her own grandson, Vianne invites the kid over whenever grandma is sampling hot chocolate. An outraged Reynaud encourages the town's new (and very young) priest (Hugh O'Conor) to discredit Vianne, but to no avail.

You're probably wondering about Johnny Depp, and you will be while you're watching the movie, too.

Enough already!

Though Depp's prominently featured in the trailer and print ads, he doesn't show up until halfway through the story -- and even then he's not there all that much. He plays an Irish gypsy who suddenly lands his barge on the riverbank and woos Vianne.

The gypsy unleashes Vianne's spirit because she's been too busy perking up her customers to properly work on her own psyche. Depp can be truly dashing, even when he looks in dire need of a shower. He and Binoche have an intuitive chemistry with each other; their scenes together are lovely. It's too bad Hallstrom didn't include more of them.

This all rolls along nicely, though not very dramatically. The cast is terrific, and there are a handful of choice comic moments, many centering around the priest. But there comes a point when enough is enough, and Hallstrom just keeps on going, slinging chocolate like a salve for every kind of psychic wound. It eventually stops being cute. Molina's character gets particularly tiresome; he's in dire need of a slap in the mouth long before he pays any penance. And the latter third of the story grows far too serious, in light of the affability that precedes it.

If nothing else, you won't want dessert for a couple of weeks once you've scrutinized Binoche's gastronomic excesses. Think of this "Chocolat" as the first step in your after-Christmas fitness program.

"Chocolat" features a lot of implied sex, but only a very brief glimpse of two people going at it. There's no profanity. And, as already stated, Depp could use a shower. PG-13. 121 minutes.



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