Mouthwatering Chocolat … Meg Ryan’s Own Rambo

The Christmas countdown begins. With approximately 30 more

movies to open before the annual Dec. 31 deadline for Oscar consideration-at

least a dozen of which are scheduled to simultaneously start rolling on

projectors Dec. 22-holiday traffic at the movies is rapidly approaching

gridlock. I’m spreading the news the only way possible-as fast as I can see

them, I’ll pass the word on to you. The final vote is yours, so conserve your

energy, consider the candidates on your holiday menu carefully and watch those

hanging chads.

High on the recommended list there is the enchanting Chocolat , an unusual and magical film by

the distinguished director Lasse Hallström-his first since last year’s The Cider House Rules , and a real

charmer that turns out to be as delectable as its title. Chocolat is a modern-day fable (read: fairy tale) about the

restorative power of food that raises the photogenic splendors of hot fudge to

a level of art worthy of an exhibition at the Guggenheim. The setting is a

picturesque but stodgy and old-fashioned village in a remote region of France:

resistant to change, suspicious of outsiders and firmly ensconced in the

centuries-old didactic religious and social traditions that have kept its

citizens moribund. On a blustery winter day while everyone is at Mass, a cold

wind strong enough to blow out the altar candles sweeps into town a drifter

named Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a cheerful but scandalously unmarried single

mother, and her beautiful young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), both

dressed like Little Red Riding Hood.

Vianne moves into an empty apartment above a shuttered store

front and has the audacity to open a chocolate shop in the middle of Lent!

While the dour, sullen mayor (Alfred Molina, as the most frustrated villain in

years) does everything he can to poison the minds of the villagers against

Vianne and drive her out of business, he is powerless against the mouthwatering

aromas and welcoming confections that pour out of Vianne’s kitchen, lure

curious customers into her shop and transform the dreary atmosphere of the grim

town. One bite of her sumptuously sinful chocolate seashells and the town’s

unsmiling and long-suffering widow (Leslie Caron) sheds the black mourning

shrouds she’s been wearing since World War I and finds romance. Vianne’s crabby

old landlady (Judi Dench) takes one sip of her hot cocoa with ground chili

peppers and turns positively jolly and ribald. The rose creams with Cointreau

empower an abused housewife (Lena Olin) with a new personality and the

self-confidence to leave her violent, brutish husband.

Estranged families reunite, loveless marriages rekindle and

children discover the joys of repressed adolescence as Vianne’s secret

ingredients unlock hidden longings and unleash unfulfilled destinies. Even

Vianne herself finds love and a sense of belonging with an unwelcome riverboat

vagabond (Johnny Depp). But as her exotic truffles awaken a newly discovered

taste for pleasure and freedom, the self-righteous mayor denounces the profound

effect on his villagers as an erosion of morality. Something must be done to

stop the fun, so the old goat declares war on chocolate and a near tragedy

ensues. But this is an uplifting feel-good film, and even a rigid, bigoted,

pious control freak like the mayor meets his Waterloo when it comes to

desserts.

The film is gorgeously photographed, with all the splendid

postcard views you might find in an illustrated edition of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird , and the tongue-in-cheek

performers are exhilaratingly secure in their grasp of the whimsical material.

Ms. Binoche has never been less prosaic (read: vacuous) or more beautiful, but

even she is sometimes upstaged by the chocolate. There is one delightful

sequence in which she and her newly liberated friends prepare a lavish dinner

for her landlord’s 70th birthday that is the most sensual exploration of food

on film since Babette’s Feast . Mr.

Hallström temporarily abandons his fine cast to lovingly zoom in on the whisks

and spoons and ladles that whip vats of addictive chocolate into decadent

macaroons, mocha kisses, marble cakes, mousses, tortes, Florentines and russes

of indescribably rich rapture. My own easily tempted sweet tooth was so turned

on by Chocolat that I headed for the

nearest drug store and bought a Hershey bar. (Opens Dec. 15.)

Meg Ryan’s Own Rambo

If Proof of Life

is remembered for anything, it will be this: Russell Crowe met Meg Ryan here,

knocked her right out of her Manolo Blahniks, and another Hollywood marriage

became a statistic. I’m no therapist, and what the future holds for Ms. Ryan

and her estranged husband, Dennis Quaid, has nothing do with movie criticism

anyway, but from the seat in which I suffered through Proof of Life , I’d say it’s not a movie worth leaving home for.

That goes for you, too.

When an American engineer (David Morse) is kidnapped by

rebel guerrillas while constructing a dam in some fictitious South American

country in the Andes and held for a ridiculously inflated $3 million ransom,

his distraught wife (Meg Ryan) turns to a professional “K. and R.” expert

(Russell Crowe) to find and save him. “K. and R.” means “Kidnap and Ransom,”

and because of the growing number of executives and tourists being abducted

weekly in God-forsaken banana republics you won’t find on maps, it’s become a

cottage industry involving spies, assassins, counter-revolutionaries,

state-of-the-art weapons, armored cars, helicopters and all kinds of James Bond

huggermugger you read about in magazines. (The movie is based on an article in

the May 1998 issue of Vanity Fair .)

Mr. Crowe is a terrific hostage negotiator, but after Ms.

Ryan is abandoned by her husband’s employer, her insurance company and the U.S.

Embassy, he sticks around for no logical reason except that he’s falling in

love, despite a lack of chemistry between them that is positively mystifying.

When negotiations break down, there’s one option left: The fearless,

two-fisted, monosyllabic one-man machine gun heads for the jungle on foot to

bring the hostage back alive, while Ms. Ryan waits by her cell phone with

perfectly frosted hair, biting her perfectly manicured nails.

Director Taylor Hackford invests more enthusiasm in the

jungle-ambush sequences and in the climbing shots in the Andes than he shows in

the slow, talky exposition scenes, and the script by Tony Gilroy is filled with

too much personal reflection. Ms. Ryan frets about the miscarriage she had in

Africa, Mr. Crowe worries about his son’s soccer game in London, Mr. Morse

worries about gangrene. And we worry about how long it will take to cut to the

chase. When they do, the bullets fly. But there are too many confusing subplot

snafus about the military, the guerrillas who must fend them off to protect

their cocaine factory and an oil pipeline that is going straight through the

hostage camp. The trajectory shakily totters between action and distraction.

Mr. Crowe is still pumped and buffed from Gladiator , but he never speaks above an

annoying mutter. As a grief-stricken wife verging on the brink of insanity, the

radiant Ms. Ryan is probably the most glamorous damsel in crisis since Garbo

wafted through a cholera epidemic in China-in gowns by Adrian-in The Painted Veil . Considering that the

two leads are creating well-publicized sparks on and off the screen, it’s

pretty odd that David Morse gives the best performance and literally steals the

picture. Transporting all that personnel and equipment to England, Poland and

Ecuador seems like a lot of unnecessary expense for a movie that amounts to

practically nothing at all. It’s the kind of thing Robert Mitchum and Jane

Russell used to turn out in their sleep, and they never left the backlot at

RKO. (Opens Dec. 8.)

Before There Was a

Bridget Jones …

The House of Mirth ,

painstakingly directed by Britain’s Terence Davies, is a thoughtful, considered

rendering of the great Edith Wharton novel about social hypocrisy in 1905. For

some bewildering reason, Wharton is always being compared to Jane Austen.

Stylistically and thematically, she is more akin to her male literary

counterpart, Theodore Dreiser; and Lily Bart, her most hauntingly tragic

character, is reminiscent of George Eastman (played so memorably by Montgomery

Clift in George Stevens’ 1951 masterpiece A

Place in the Sun ) and George Hurstwood (expertly played by Laurence Olivier

in William Wyler’s sensational 1952 film Carrie )-two

characters who tested the social fabric of their time, with disastrously fatal

results. For men and women who changed classes at the turn of the century-in

either upwardly mobile moves or a downward spiral-the puritanical morals of the

time dictated a fate of loss, guilt and self-torment. As a girl with no money

who wants to climb the social ladder, Lily Bart is not so much a victim of

ambition as she is of her own lack of skill in being a ruthless player.

A girl without a dime who wanted to elevate her position in

1905 didn’t have the luxury of beating society at its own game and remaining

honest and virtuous at the same time. Lily (Gillian Anderson) wants cashmere,

security and amusement, but she also wants romance. Half a century later, she

could take classes from Lorelei Lee. The men who clamor for her affections all

have one missing ingredient, and Lily holds out so long for the brass ring that

her reputation is ruined. Wrongly accused of having an affair with a married

man by a mean and scheming rival (played by Laura Linney, excellent as always,

but in the wrong role), deserted by her fair-weather society friends, up to her

pretty ears in debt for the money she lost at bridge and disinherited by her

aunt, Lily meets with one misfortune after another. She refuses to settle for

either living in sin or languishing conventionally in compromise, and ends up

pathetically disintegrating while her life crashes and burns.

It’s a somber, depressing literary classic, and for the most

part Mr. Davies captures Wharton’s laser dissection of New York’s vicious,

superficial social poseurs while remaining faithful to her strong ability to

develop character. But there are times when the lace curtains, parasols,

ostrich plumes, ascots and silk bustles make more noise than the people

themselves, who speak carefully manicured sentences in veiled undertones while

we wait impatiently for them to get to the point. The boredom factor is

positively treacherous.

But the film is elegantly photographed and ravishingly

appointed in the best Merchant Ivory tradition, and Ms. Anderson and Ms.

Linney, along with Elizabeth McGovern, Eric Stoltz, Anthony LaPaglia, Dan

Aykroyd and Terry Kinney (unrecognizable from his role on the gritty cable-TV

series Oz ), do their best to convey

the pretensions and manners of calculating women and the prissy-mouthed men as

easily manipulated by them as sluggish moths. Ms. Anderson has come a long way

from The X-Files , but sometimes she

mistakes flaring nostrils and heaving bosoms for insight and introspection.

(Opens Dec. 22.)