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Polymorphously Perfect

Best Out of Ten: In 'Better Than Chocolate,' Carla (Marya Delver) and Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) work at Ten Percent Books, which is not a discount store.

'Better Than Chocolate' imagines Vancouver as a sexual paradise

By Richard von Busack

MAGGIE (KARYN DWYER) used to be a straight-A student. Now she's not an A-student anymore, let alone straight. Having dropped out of law school, she's working at Vancouver's Ten Percent Books. Catastrophe strikes: her mother and her brother descend on her, and so Maggie sublets a loft for all three of them to live in. Right before mom arrives, Maggie falls in love with Kim, a blonde, nomadic artist (Christina Cox). The rest of the film is Maggie's efforts to keep from blurting out the truth about her lesbianism to her mom.

This does all sound too much like a girl's version of Norman ... Is That You? However, director Anne Wheeler constantly diverts us, especially with the robustness of the love affair between Maggie and Kim--displayed in a terribly erotic body-painting scene.

While the main focus of Better Than Chocolate is a pair of girlfriends, the crowd includes a bisexual gal who ends the movie in the arms of a man, a pre-op transsexual and even a middle-aged woman exploring what the Good Vibrations catalog likes to call "solitary pleasures." (There are rubber objects in this movie that look positively extraterrestrial--especially this one item that looks like a 16-inch-long shocking-pink earwig.)

Better than Chocolate has everything: a very attractive cast, a diverse score, numerous subplots and a setting in Vancouver in the summertime. Much of it takes place on the waterfront illuminated with golden light from the harbor; the rest occurs in a neighborhood bookstore on a leafy, shady street. A threat of severe maternal disapproval and a gang of prowling skinheads keep things from being too sweet.

Subplots abound, including the business problems of Ten Percent Books. (Mom, played by the Mary Tyler Moore-ish Wendy Crewson, doesn't realize that the store's name refers to the idea that 10 percent of the population is gay, believing instead that "Ten Percent" means it's a discount store.) The bookstore is matching wits with pernicious, arbitrary Canadian customs agents who are holding up their books at the border. Another subplot is the search for love by Judy, a tall, gentle, good-hearted transsexual (played by Peter Outerbridge, the best actor in the ensemble). Whenever the story loses steam, we observe a lip-synch act at the Cat's Ass Nightclub, where Maggie sometimes performs. I especially liked one mysterious ultraviolet-lit number saluting the actress Julie Christie, set to a yé-yé song by Lorraine Bowen. The name of the Cat's Ass may sound arcane, and it isn't explained in the film. But I know the ancient proverb: "nothing is as proud as the cat's ass." Wheeler should be just so proud of Better Than Chocolate. Disliking this movie would be like disliking chocolate. Even the pointless break-up-to-make-up business at the end is justified by the quantity of affection director Wheeler has for the city and the lovers in it.

Better Than Chocolate (R; 101 min.), directed by Anne Wheeler, written by Peggy Thompson, photographed by Gregory Middleton and starring Wendy Crewson, Karyn Dwyer, Christina Cox and Peter Outerbridge, opens Friday in San Jose at the Towne Theatre.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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