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BEE SEASON
U.S. Release Date: November 11, 2005
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Producer: Albert Berger, Arnon Milchan (executive producer), Ron Yerxa
Cast: Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Kate Bosworth
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language)

The Family Sorcerer Casts a Misspell
by Scott Holleran

The dreary Bee Season takes a firm dramatic subject—the role of mysticism in one family's demise—and intellectualizes it to death. Written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Myla Goldberg and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who directed the eerie Lake Tahoe tale, The Deep End), this ponderous drama drains the life out of everyone in it—and in the theater.

Richard Gere portrays a husband, father and religious scholar who spouts so much Judaic gibberish he starts to sound like Madonna. Juliette Binoche plays his wife, and there's a teen-aged son searching for a philosophy (Max Minghella). The movie's faint voice, a young girl (played by Flora Cross) is one of those catatonic Hollywood child-creatures with no facial expression.

That she is also a terrific speller is utterly beside the point until the very last minute. They are all too busy being northern California automatons, scarfing down food while talking to one another like equivalent adults, urging the universe (from the fridge) to "keep Tahoe blue" and listening to NPR in their Volvo. As a unit, they are a bit iffy but there are families like this. Gere's mystic is a self-centered misfire from the start, lacking completely in good qualities except that he cooks dinner and apparently makes a living studying the word of God, which is where, believe it or not, the spelling comes in.

When daughter Eliza scores in her school spelling bee, Gere finally notices that he has two children, pushing the favored son, who plays a musical instrument, aside and casting wife Binoche farther adrift. Gere manipulates his daughter the way he used his wife and son—as vessels in his attempted communion with God—and, while Binoche slips away, the boy huffily practices what pop preaches (more consistently than anyone, apparently including the directors, realizes.)

When Gere improbably catches on that his family is fragmented, he fetches his son, whose mission has taken a troubling turn, and the kid blithely accepts Gere's sudden guidance and discipline. Here, the robots reprogram themselves—magically, mystically and with words of God dancing off the girl's floral print dresses as she spells her way to the finals.

The logic of the family's dynamic—total disintegration—is abandoned; the father protests, the boy obeys, and don't bother trying to figure mother's mysterious problem. The picture climaxes with the freakish girl in a physically exhausting hotel room scene on the eve of her national spelling bee that might have been produced by the Kansas Board of Education. The only thing missing is speaking in tongues.

At that, the whole thing is patently ridiculous, and that might have been Bee Season's point (if Gyllenhaal had not hedged her bets). Binoche plays the opposite of her radiant temptress in Lasse Hallstrom's mouth-watering Chocolat, and hers is the most open performance. Kate Bosworth does a good job playing a Manson Family member waiting to happen.

The movie's last-minute twist tries to salvage the story the way the vacant child tries to save her family, but it's merely a stabilizer for those still spinning from the earlier scene. While spiritual fulfillment is a desirable goal, and maybe the book is better, Bee Season takes its appeal—the love of words as concepts—and squanders it on a tirelessly self-denying message.


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