This month, AfterEllen.com is bringing you reviews of several newer lesbian classics. We’ve all heard of Desert Hearts, but what came after?
Better Than Chocolate is the kind of film that most people tend to love or hate. It’s a campy, funny, heavy-handed romp through familiar territory, and it’s become a kind of modern classic among lesbian films. Originally released in 1999 — and subsequently purchased by every other lesbian in North America — Better Than Chocolate is worth revisiting, especially in terms of how far we’ve come in the eight years since its release.
Frantically directed by Anne Wheeler, the film centers on Maggie (Karyn Dwyer), a young lesbian fresh from her short stint in law school and eager to cool her heels in bohemian life. She spends her time dancing in gay clubs and working in a queer bookstore called Ten Percent Books, where she also sleeps on the couch and encounters all sorts of wacky personalities. Early in the film, Maggie runs into Kim (Christina Cox) a sexy, traveling artist, and the sparks (as well as the occasional can of body paint) fly.
True to the age-old stereotype of lesbians moving in together after the first date, Maggie and Kim relocate to an apartment Maggie sublets from a traveling sex educator. And Maggie’s mother is planning on coming for a visit, expecting Chez Maggie to encompass something more than a couch.
Unfortunately for everyone, it’s not a temporary visit. Maggie’s oblivious mother, Lila (Wendy Crewson), and Maggie’s younger brother, Paul (Kevin Mundy), actually move in, both reeling in the wake of Lila’s recent divorce. The overbearing Lila, who still thinks her daughter is straight and narrow, cramps everybody’s style and generally reeks of intolerance.
The setup is certainly good for some laughs. As Kim exclaims, “This must be love; otherwise we’d never put ourselves through this!” It’s fun to watch Mom bumble obliviously through the love nest, not picking up on any of the obvious hints, including random sex toys, beer and other fashion accessories.
However, it’s not as fun to watch the plot unfold predictably. Maggie doesn’t want her mother to know about her sexuality and her relationship with Kim, Kim doesn’t want to hide it, and this plot isn’t getting any younger.
The closet tug-of-war isn’t the only tired plotline in the movie. The exploits of Judy (played by Peter Outerbridge), Maggie’s male-to-female transitioning friend and fellow club performer, are stated with cringe-inducing heavy-handedness. One scene is particularly painful: Judy is in the ladies’ room doing her makeup when a flannel-clad woman comes in and abuses her, prompting Maggie and Kim to rush in and save the day. The sentiment is fine, but it’s so overstated that a potentially powerful scene is rendered cartoonish and limp.
Perhaps it is simply the case that portrayals of transfolk have become somewhat more sophisticated in the years since Better Than Chocolate was made. After all, we have had such mainstream films as Transamerica, and even the Moira/Max story line on The L Word, for all its faults, at least attempts to examine the issue from multiple viewpoints. Conversely, it may just be that Better Than Chocolate can’t do drama without hitting the audience over the head with it.
One of the major themes running rampant throughout the movie is the idea of subjectivity between obscenity and art. Frances (Ten Percent’s neurotic owner) has a shipment of books stopped at customs because they are labeled “obscene,” prompting a whole slew of discourse over art and censorship. This is all well and good, but the point is hammered in a bit too hard in the many subsequent scenes involving Maggie making some sort of dramatic protest.