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Life’s a drag, then you die of poison cocoa 

Mike Leigh's All or Nothing focuses mainly on the Bassett family, who live and/or work in Southeast London. Well, maybe "live" isn't the right verb --- "exist" might be more appropriate. They seem to have a nice, normal family life, but are far too miserable to appreciate it.

            Phil (Timothy Spall) is the father, a cab driver who is as enthused with his life as I am to see Biker Boyz. He can't drag himself out of bed early enough to take advantage of the morning traffic rush, and often calls the day quits before the evening commute begins. With a constant hangdog expression reminiscent of an actual Bassett, Phil sleepwalks through life like a man who is wearing someone else's boring existence.

            Phil's common-law wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), is a bit cheerier, but is quickly nearing the end of her rope. Thanks to Phil's half-assed attempt at employment, Penny has to have her own full-time job down at the Safeway and take care of the cooking, cleaning, and ironing. The Bassett kids aren't much better than their parents. Pudgy Rachel (Alison Garland), who works a low-level job at a nursing home, is already well on her way to becoming just like her zombie dad. Rory (James Corden) can barely muster enough energy to make the two-foot journey from his place at the kitchen table to the couch, which is where he spends the entire day (when he isn't suggesting to his mum that she get bent).

            So the Bassetts, who are like The Royle Family on thorazine, are pretty much all alone, even though they're all together. The few conversations they have are very short and only take place when absolutely necessary. Nobody is at all connected to one another --- at least not until The Big Surprising Thing That Binds Them Together As A Family occurs. Once that happens, they start talking to each other, as well as listening and caring, which, unfortunately, causes Nothing to completely abandon its numerous depressing subplots involving the Bassetts' neighbors and co-workers.

            Nothing seems very heavy-handed for something written and directed by Leigh (Topsy-Turvy). Andrew Dickson's score is painfully melodramatic, to the point I nearly began rooting around the theater for something to have at my wrists with. There are a bunch of potential reasons why Nothing is so frigging depressing. It might reflect the growing sentimentality of an aging Leigh. It could just have been where his improvisation led him (Leigh never works with a proper script, instead creating the story on the fly with his cast --- which makes his two Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay seem awfully funny). Or perhaps he's mocking the working class in the way Todd Solondz mocks the US's upper-middle class.

            Regardless, you can't deny the acting in Nothing is some of the year's best. With Spall and Manville leading the way, Leigh's film is full of memorable performances from top to bottom. The big scene at the end between Phil and Penny tops anything we saw in last year's bloated In the Bedroom. The only negatives are the forgotten subplots and the almost laughable character named Carol, who is kind of an extreme Patsy Stone.

           

American audiences got a taste of Claude Chabrol last May via Unfaithful, the Diane Lane-Richard Gere vehicle which was a remake of his 1969 film, La Femme Infidele. On January 31, you can catch Chabrol's most recently released directorial effort at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre. The year 2000's Merci Pour Le Chocolat is a perfect example of why Chabrol has been referred to as The French Hitchcock throughout the majority of his career.

            This time, Chabrol uses American mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong's novel, The Chocolate Cobweb, which he co-adapts here with Caroline Eliacheff, to get his Hitchcock on. The story isn't nearly as complicated as I'm about to make it seem, but it's the only way the plot can be briefly encapsulated by a review slapped with a limited word count.

            Let's start with some family history: André Polonski (musician Jacques Dutronc) is a famous concert pianist who was briefly married to a woman named Mika many years before the opening credits roll. After their divorce, André married Mika's friend Lisbeth, and their relationship spawned a son named Guillaume.

            When Chocolat opens, André is marrying Mika (8 Women's Isabelle Huppert) again --- apparently Lisbeth was killed when she wrecked her car after falling asleep at the wheel. In the meantime, Mika has inherited her father's lucrative chocolate company, as well as her mother's secret recipe for delicious hot cocoa, which she gleefully prepares each evening for André and 18-year-old Guillaume.

            One day, after seeing the wedding announcement for André and Mika in the paper, fellow Lausanne, Switzerland, resident Louise (Brigitte Catillon) tells her 18-year-old daughter Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis) a knee-slapper of a story in which, after giving birth, Jeanne was temporarily misidentified as André's son Guillaume. Since Jeanne is an aspiring pianist, she strikes up a friendship with André, and quickly discovers the two have much more in common than he and the tin-eared Guillaume. Perhaps that baby confusion at the hospital was never properly resolved after all.

            This is not good news for Mika, who we slowly learn is adding a special ingredient to her cocoa --- one that most likely resulted in the car crash that killed Lisbeth. And now here comes Jeanne, Lisbeth's spitting image, to lure André's attention away --- almost as if she's returning from the grave for a final "screw you" to her killer. [Don't think I'm giving too much away here, because Chocolat is one of those films where you know what the antagonist is up to (a whodunit), but the bulk of the film is spent trying to uncover the motives behind it (a whydunit).]

            Chocolat is Huppert's show to steal, and she makes a meal of it, channeling Kathy Baker's creepy turn as the repressed mother on Boston Public just as much as 8 Women's Augustine. A lesser (read: American) actress would have hammed this role up big-time, but Huppert doesn't, making her character all the more sinister. Chocolat is like a good truffle. The outside melts away fairly quickly, but Huppert's substantial center will allow you to savor it for quite a while.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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