By Thane Peterson
The Oscar nominatons are out, and moviemaker Miramax has surprised the experts by garnering several nominations for the faux French film, Chocolat, which was nominated for best picture. Its star, Juliette Binoche, also was one of the best actress nominees, and Judi Dench got a nod for best supporting actress.
Impressive as this is, it's a bit of a comedown for Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who along with his brother Bob founded the studio. Just a few years ago, Miramax seemed to be on the verge of dominating the Academy Awards. It was so strong in 1996 that it racked up 20 Oscar nominations. Miramax' The English Patient was the big winner, nabbing best picture, best director, and best supporting actress for Binoche. For 1998, Miramax had 23 nominations, including two for best picture: Life is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love, which won. And at the 1999 awards, Miramax' Cider House Rules was a surprise nominee for best picture, though it deservedly lost out to DreamWorks' American Beauty.
To me, this is more a triumph of Miramax' powerful Oscar marketing machine than the quality of its films. The studio was skunked at the Golden Globe awards this year and at most of the other awards. Miramax has six movies out at the moment, if you count the rerelease of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. In addition to Chocolat, there are All The Pretty Horses, Malena, Bounce, and The Yards. The ones I've seen -- including Chocolat -- are like the pale creations you would get if you made European art films based on heavy focus-group research with mainstream American audiences. Everything distinctive or potentially objectionable is removed, and you end up with a product as sweet and confectionary as caramel corn.
Chocolat is pretty typical. It's the story of a beautiful, headstrong single mother (Binoche) and her young daughter, who move to an insular French village and open a chocolate shop. At the urging of a pliant young priest and the stuffy Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), most of the villagers turn against the newcomers, whose chocolate has magical and sometimes aphrodisiac qualities. Subplots and additional star appeal are provided by Johnny Depp, playing an itinerant musician; Judi Dench as the shop's aging, diabetic landlady; and Lena Olin as the local barkeep's battered wife. In the end, of course, Binoche is accepted by the villagers, Depp gets the girl, and Olin takes over her abusive husband's bar after he's driven out of town. Everyone, presumably, lives happily ever after.
This is like a parody of the innovative smaller films the Weinsteins set out to champion when they founded Miramax two decades ago. My advice: Skip Chocolat and rent Babette's Feast, the far superior Danish movie on which it appears to be modeled. In Chocolat, the story is predictable and paced much like a Hollywood movie, with convenient plot turns every couple of minutes and a lot of hokey fairy-tale elements. There's also a disturbing dose of American-style political correctness, incongruous in a film set in France. As part of the film's pre-Oscar hype, Swedish-born director Lasse Halström has been championing it as a great chick flick because of its strong women characters. Miramax even held a special screening for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, figuring Chocolat's message of tolerance would appeal to him.
Tolerance for whom, you have to wonder -- candymakers? And the women characters are interesting only in comparison to the men, who are all clichés. Plus, I couldn't get beyond the pigeon French sprinkled into the English dialogue, apparently to add verisimilitude while avoiding subtitles. It's embarrassing to hear gifted French actresses such as Binoche and Leslie Caron (who has a bit part) speak this way. At one point, Reynaud even says "bon journée" instead of "bonjour" or "bonne journée" -- just as jarring, if you speak French, as an American actor saying, "Have a well day."
All the Pretty Horses isn't much better, even though it's adapted from an acclaimed Cormac McCarthy novel. Matt Damon and Henry Thomas play John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, two young Texas cowboys who light out for Mexico. A forbidden romance develops between Damon and Penelope Cruz, playing the spoiled daughter of the rich Mexican rancher the two cowpokes work for. Cruz was wonderful as a young nun with AIDS in All About my Mother, the Pedro Almodóvar movie that won best foreign film last year. In All the Pretty Horses, she comes off as a soap-opera queen.
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton, the movie tries to emulate a classic John Ford Western. About the only place it succeeds is in its abundant and spectacular footage of the landscape. The dialogue between Damon and Cruz is stilted, and the mordant philosophizing by a meddling aunt is even worse. For me, the doomed romance -- with its 19th century code of honor -- is improbable, given that the picture is set in 1949. I kept wondering why the two young lovers didn't just agree to shack up in Los Angeles or someplace else where they'd be safe.
NOT TOO PREDICTABLE.
Malena, the other current Miramax movie I've seen, taps into some real emotions. It's in Italian with subtitles, more palatable than the pigeon French of Chocolat. Malena is an appealing sexual coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy obsessed with a beautiful young war widow in Sicily during World War II. And unlike the other two films, the outcome here isn't totally predictable.
This film's weak spot is Monica Bellucci, playing the widow (who turns out not to be a widow). Not much of an actress, she mainly struts through the village in tight dresses as men ogle her, her face as wooden as a doll's. Director Giuseppe Tornatore handled a similar theme much more deftly in his Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso. Here you get the feeling he's trying to cash in on the popularity of the earlier film. Allowed only one submission to the Oscars for consideration as best foreign film, Italy chose an anti-Mafia movie called The 100 Steps over Malena.
It could be that Miramax is just at a temporary low point. The company has a raft of new movies on the way, including Gangs of New York, a 19th century crime epic by the great Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz. Other upcoming Miramax features also have a fair quotient of star appeal: Bridget Jones's Diary with Hugh Grant, Serendipity with John Cusack, and Daddy and Them with Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Dern, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Ben Affleck.
But this is a long way from Miramax' original mission. Harvey Weinstein has often said he got into films after falling in love with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows. The Weinsteins' original aim was to champion such films, even though they don't pull in huge audiences or turn big profits. When the Weinsteins sold their studio to Walt Disney Co. a few years ago, you had to figure they planned to go a lot more Hollywood. I just wish they would do a better job of it than they have lately.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online