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starring Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross, Max Minghella
screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Myla Goldberg
directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel
by Walter Chaw A lot of mortal liberties were taken with Myla Goldberg's Bee Season on its way to the big screen under the pen of Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal and direction of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, most of them having to do with softening the suffocating fanaticism and sensuality of the novel in favour of the soothing neutral tones of the fearful doorstop demographic. It's not that the book is better, it's that the book is entirely different: the one has a point of view while the other mainly boasts an air of pusillanimous equivocation that turns a vaguely threatening story concerning Kaballah and Hebrew mysticism into Searching for Bobby Fischer. The problem might be that Richard Gere's Saul is a hotshot college professor in this version, and completely reasonable and charming to boot. The problem might be, in other words, that Gere is too good for this movie.
It renders the moody revolt of his children (older Aaron (Max Minghella) and younger Ellie (Flora Cross)) the product of adolescent (and pre-adolescent) churlishness rather than any kind of daddy neglect. Likewise, the psychotic break of wife Miriam (a badly squandered Juliette Binoche) midway through (collecting shiny baubles with which to line her storage-unit nest, she evidently wants to be a mockingbird of some kind) now seems the product of those suburban upper-class cream-fed blues and, moreover, wholly unsympathetic. The problem with Bee Season is that everyone except the ostensible villain needs a good, hard, slap across the face. Therefore, as the climax comes with Saul reaching an epiphany about how he's mistreated his wife and kids, it's all just cross-eyed badger spit.
Ellie is good at spelling, having apparently tapped into some sort of divine well of spelling inspiration, prompting Saul to help her singular pursuits by marrying them to an exploration of the writings of Jewish mystics and the belief in the creative power of the Word. (Magic realism takes the form of consumer CGI in Bee Season, literalizing kaleidoscopic flights of fancy and the scratches of graphite on paper as florid with literary self-reference as a T.S. Eliot poem.) Ellie doesn't really mind, but Aaron, the favourite, is slightly peeved by the shifting of attentions--at least until he's picked up by the world's most attractive Hare Krishna, Chali (Kate Bosworth), and fitted for an orange frock and a tambourine. There's nothing quite like an incredibly hot girl to inspire a lonely teen to lose his religion. Chali, by the by, was an older man in the novel; given the queer leanings of McGehee & Siegel's The Deep End, it's easy to surmise (if not commensurately easy to respect) that this change was made to accommodate a theoretical wider audience. (The wider the audience, the narrower the risqué.) Not exactly peeved, per se, Miriam is meanwhile mostly a fruitcake who spends her nights wandering the streets in her nightgown and her days driving around wearing a pinched expression, wondering how it is that she wound up right back in Blue.
I think the intention here was to craft a film about the final disintegration of a family already cracking under the pressure of a religious zealot paterfamilias, using the national spelling bee as a metaphor for fanatical attention to minutia. What Bee Season ends up as is a secularization of mystery and an Afterschool Special about a gloomy little girl with a gift who teaches everyone a lesson in the true meaning of grace by taking a dive at the moment of truth. Asked to spell "solipsistic" at one point, I felt sure she was going to say "B-E-E-S-E-A-S-O-N," so inward-collapsing and pretentious is the whole exercise and so typically "American indie" is this whole trend of leaning far enough into the navels of unrecognizable upper crust marionettes that the main threat is from vertigo and nosebleed. Loaded down with slow push-ins for reaction shots and restless tracking shots to lend poetry where the screenplay has stripped it away, Bee Season says a good deal less than it wants to--and long before it finds a wise black housekeeper to show Ellie the way to conclude this mess on an uplifting note, it's transformed itself from a drab prestige picture into that guy at the cocktail party who took one year of cosmology and considers himself the master of the universe. Bee Season is a bore, but it's also a boor--another wet log on a sputtering Oscar-season fire. Originally published: November 11, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Fox issues Bee Season on DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation with a pan-and-scan version on the flipside. In a recent interview with the great Bryant Frazer, Robert Elswit (Paul Thomas Anderson's regular DP) lauded Bee Season's use of 'scope, and not only do I concur that the movie is refreshingly un-"TV safe," but I'm happy to report that Giles Nuttgens's cinematography looks incredibly lush on the small screen, too. This is an immaculate transfer, though others have noticed some edge-enhancement that eluded these eyes; giving my peers the benefit of the doubt, I'm docking the image a fraction of a grade. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is similarly irreproachable, although the mix itself is pretty dry: not even Eliza's kooky trances light a fire in the surround channels, which are used mainly to multiply the number of spectators at her spelling bees. Extras are spread out over both sides of the platter, with the fullscreen half containing Bee Season's theatrical trailer plus two featurettes: "The Cutting Room Floor" (4 mins.), a hilariously stately montage of bloopers set to Ivy's "I'll Be Near You"; and "The Essence of Bee Season" (6 mins.), in which Columbia University's director of undergraduate film studies Annette Insdorf and various other scholars whore themselves out for a glorified EPK whose aim appears to be to further secularize Bee Season, or at least neutralize its Jewishness (hence the presence of Rev. Frank T. Griswold, helpfully identified as a "Primate"). Nevertheless, it's too short and clips-heavy to do much except embarrass the participants.
Turn the disc over to access two feature-length commentaries, deleted scenes, and "The Making of Bee Season", the acronym of which appropriately spells "Mo' BS." The first yakker pairs up co-helmers Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and it's only really interesting through the prism of the second, wherein producer Albert Berger and screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal are often sour grapes about directorial choices rationalized on the previous track. Gyllenhaal, a.k.a. Jake and Maggie's mother, is a smart cookie, but by her own admission, she's spent years in analysis and it shows in how she looks at the film's characters as problems to solve rather than territory to explore. All parties inexplicably defend the guru's sex change as an attempt to show a teenager's sexual and spiritual awakenings to be one and the same, but McGehee and Siegel have the good sense to add that Chali seems less predatory as a woman and is thus not as likely to leave audiences with the impression that the filmmakers are trying to demonize the Hare Krishna. Never thought of it that way. The aforementioned elisions, with optional commentary from McGehee/Siegel, run 6 minutes in full and notably showcase a rare smile from the morose Flora Cross, as well as an abortive sex scene between Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. Cuing up before startup, a Fox Searchlight reel, trailers for In Her Shoes and Little Manhattan, and that moronic anti-piracy PSA round out the DVD. Originally published: March 27, 2006.