Better Than Chocolate * Written by Peggy Thompson * Directed by Anne Wheeler * Starring Karyn Dwyer, Christina Cox, Wendy Crewson, Kevin Mundy, Peter Outerbridge, and Ann-Marie MacDonald * Trimark
Mothers Against Canada, those vigilant South Park watchdogs of moral parameters, would get their panties in a bunch over Better Than Chocolate. This airy romantic comedy out of Vancouver is teeming with horny babes and hot, lip-smacking girl-girl sex. They do it with paintbrushes, French ticklers, and other assorted sexual accoutrements. They do it in the shower, in a toilet stall, and--talk about your moving violations--in an illegally parked van as it's being towed away.
God knows what they're putting in the water up there, but Canada is growing lesbian and gay movies as big and ripe as the giant vegetables in Woody Allen's Sleeper. Frank, succulent produce such as I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, The Hanging Garden, and even the high-minded Lilies has given the Canuck censor board a run for its plows.
Censorship of both the personal and bureaucratic kind is at the heart of director Anne Wheeler and writer-coproducer Peggy Thompson's Better Than Chocolate. Their 19-year-old protagonist, Maggie (Karyn Dwyer, a bashful beauty with a Joan Allen smile and Raggedy Ann-red hair), works at a gay bookstore that is having to contend with customs blockades from a frowning government bureaucrat. At the same time, she conceals the true nature of her relationship with her new girlfriend, Kim (Christina Cox), from her emotionally fragile mother, Lila (Wendy Crewson).
Catapulted by divorce from her roving second husband, Lila, along with Maggie's 17-year-old brother, Paul (Kevin Mundy), invades Maggie's apartment. There, Lila oh-so-slowly unravels the layers of her daughter's prodigal city life. Aside from torrid nights with Kim and renegade days at the Ten Percent Bookstore (Lila assumes it's a discount bookshop), Maggie performs at a rocking women's club with her transgendered buddy, Judy (Peter Outerbridge). The out-there Maggie and Judy (who sings a tartly defiant anthem called "I'm Not a Fucking Drag Queen") inflame resident bigots at every turn, but since Better Than Chocolate is ultimately a soft-centered confection, there is always somebody around to save their butts when the going gets too rough.
Judy is the film's most interesting character, as much for the sweet anti-drag-queen performance of Outerbridge as for what her role says about the ways in which gay comedies reinvent straight film conventions. Now that hetero comedies ace increasingly giving over the funny confidante role once inhabited by Thelma Ritter or Eve Arden to gay men (My Best Friend's Wedding), homo filmmakers seem to be relegating lesbians to the old sidekick chestnut (such as Lea DeLaria as the token lesbian in the resolutely male coming-out story Edge of Seventeen). What saves Judy from being just another quipping, celibate sidekick is the urgency of her struggle, as she is rejected on the family front by her father and on the romantic front by Ten Percent's owner (the earnestly amusing Ann-Marie MacDonald), who is not nearly as cutting-edge as she purports to be.
Better Than Chocolate is polished and insouciant and boasts the flashiest club numbers since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The fly in the ointment is the pivotal mother-daughter axis. Maggie's wimpy, grin-and-bear-it posture toward her mother's marauding tactics makes you want to slap her, while the filmmakers' smirking regard for Mom is wanting for empathy. Crewson's Lila is mother-as-clown, a weepy, dense, flibbertigibbet cross between the Mary Tyler Moores of Ordinary People and The Dick Van Dyke Show. She could be a poster gift for Canada Against Mothers.
RELATED ARTICLE: Chocolate treat
Christina Cox brings a sexy swagger to her romantic role in Better Than Chocolate
What makes Better Than Chocolate such a lesbian taste treat? The recipe starts with Christina Cox. As Kim, the artist who arrives in a van and sweeps Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) off into sexual sugar shock, Cox exudes the kind of sweetly swaggering butch allure that causes jealous fights in dyke bars everywhere.
When the movie hit the gay filmfest circuit, Cox found herself an overnight lesbian sex symbol. "The San Francisco premiere was funny," Cox tells The Advocate, speaking from her home in Toronto. "I went home, I took my pants off, and phone numbers fell out. They'd been stuck in the waistband on my pants, and I didn't even notice."
So where has Cox been all our lives? Starving on Canadian TV, as it happens. Remember F/X: The Series? (A hit in Europe, it was barely seen in America.) A former dancer and gymnast, Cox used her athleticism in playing a computer hacker on the action program. "We run around fighting crime and blowing things up," she says.
Cox got involved in Better Than Chocolate, a loosely autobiographical tale by lesbian screenwriter Peggy Thompson, because she liked its easygoing treatment of love in all flavors. "It's showing you issues but not whacking you over the head with them," Cox explains. "It's accessible."
Achieving that accessibility wasn't easy. Case in point: a sensual episode in which Kim and Maggie get naked and paint each other's bodies. "We had to do a dry--or, rather, not so dry--run of the painting scene," Cox recalls. "We weren't on our set yet, so we find ourselves in the gym at a community center, and there's a bunch of grade-schoolers [next door]. We realize we've got to run the gauntlet to get to the showers. So we scarred thousands of little boys--they look up from their hockey practice, and two naked paint-covered girls are streaking through the hallway."
Cox is proud of the on-screen sizzle she and Dwyer created. "The sex had to be better than anything you'd seen before because this is the evolution of this couple's love. [Karyn and I] put a solid foundation for that couple into our work. We've all seen bums and boobs, but what makes those scenes sexy is that they're making love."
As for Cox, she's not talking about her offscreen life--at least not today. "I'm so new to the whole interview process that I just don't answer any personal questions because I don't know where to shut the door," she says. "One of my personal icons is Jodie Foster, and I know jack about her, and I want to keep it that way. All I know is, I love her work, and this is work."
Cox will go this far: She's single. And, she says, she's happy to be the object of lesbian lust. "Desire is good," she says. "I can handle it."
To find out more about Christina Cox, Karyn Dwyer, and Better Than Chocolate, visit www.advocate.com
Stuart is theater critic and senior film writer for Newsday.