When it comes to boutique films narrowcast to Indywood's most prized demographic affluent, 21-to-30-year-old art-house attendees vagueness is the new black. (Or at least, dark gray.) We're in the midst of a surge of designer haziness initiated by American Beauty's success and defined by an avoidance of anything awful or honest enough to ruin a post-film haute cuisine meal.
Within this subgenre represented by the upscale, low-impact likes of American Beauty, Birth and The Door in the Floor comes Bee Season, co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel's follow-up to their own neo-blah thriller The Deep End. The new film echoes American Beauty in its shallow glances at luxe interfamily snipping and use of CG-generated magical realism, only with Beauty's barely legal audience-bait replaced with a For Dummies version of the Judaic mystical system of Kabbalah, aka Madonna's new hobby. Bee Season is as humorless as Birth, but with even less commitment to its supernatural implications, and it is close in theme to Door, except there's no for-sure mortality to explain its fashionable heroes' woes. So what's left?
Not much. Dressed as though he's raided Ralph Lauren's fall line, Richard Gere plays Saul, a rich, dubiously feisty Oakland religious studies professor. Saul crazy-loves his gorgeous but spacey scientist wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), and his taciturn teen son, Aaron (Max Minghella), and is increasingly focused on his precocious 11-year-old spelling-bee champ daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross).
But all is not perfect in this Pottery Barn paradise. For one thing, Miriam sometimes looks a little tense in reaction to flashbacks that never flash forward into making sense. Worse, Aaron has taken to hanging with a hot shiksa Hare Krishna devotee (Kate Bosworth).
Watching Eliza ace one bee after another, Saul begins to wonder if his daughter is channeling The Divine, a notion that the filmmakers reinforce by having her see CG-images of floating letters and papier-mâché birds that help her spell things like "solipsistic." In what could be an ironic gesture, the attention Eliza's getting for her escalating language skills begins to tear the fragile membrane of rarefied denial that keeps the family together. (One wonders what horrors a rejected platinum card would wreak on this fragile clan.)
By the time Aaron has taken to wearing posh saffron robes to better communicate with his goy girlfriend's God, we're knee-deep in tastefully presented balderdash. The senselessness includes (but is not limited to) the revelation that Miriam has been breaking into other people's homes and stealing a vast array of items so as to create some shiny installation art. (In an accidental commentary on real life, Miriam is not arrested by the black cop who catches her in one of her many felonies, but sent to a luxury mental facility.) Eliza, meanwhile, is abruptly seized by the spirit of, um, something mystically Jewish. Her body spasms, her eyes pop and in one shot, she seems to levitate. (Some pea-soup-spitting wouldn't be surprising.) Then the scene ends and is never referenced. So much for that.
But it's not Bee's increasing accumulation of hogwash, its glib, opportunistic use and dumbing-down of Kabbalah and hilariously cartoony goyishness, or even Eliza's encounter with what seems to be the Hasidic version of the demon Pazuzu that shafts the film. No, it's the very structure a film-long build to a final series of "reveals" that's at odds with the requirements of the neo-vague genre, which is a commitment to remaining uncommitted to much of anything, lest it ruin the mood of stylish nondescript magazine stasis.