Perhaps it speaks to the shortness of the human attention span. Or perhaps it just speaks to the shortness of my attention span. But nothing about a movie'except perhaps the words “directed by Simon Westâ€'is guaranteed to put me off like the kind of crappy ending that kills Bee Season.
Beginnings and endings are, of course, the most grindingly painful parts of any kind of writing. Give ’em a great opener, and they’re hooked; give ’em a great finish, and they’ll walk away believing they’ve seen greatness throughout. It’s a major reason why screenwriters have become addicted to those “gotcha” twist endings'most people will completely ignore that the preceding 90 minutes made no sense whatsoever if they’re left with one “whoa” before the credits roll.
Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal'mother of acting Gyllenhaals Jake and Maggie'gets the job of adapting Myla Goldberg’s magnificent novel, and she does a pretty solid job right up until the final, unbelievably lame five minutes. The story follows the Naumann family, an upper-middle-class foursome about to undergo some tumultuous changes. The first one seems simple enough, as sixth-grader Eliza (Flora Cross) enters her school spelling bee, and shows herself to be an astonishing prodigy as she begins advancing through regional and state levels. This development captures the attention of her father Saul (Richard Gere), a Berkeley professor and scholar of Jewish mysticism who believes that Eliza’s way with words signifies a pathway to “G-d.
But all is not well with the other family members. When Saul turns all his attention to Eliza, her teenage brother Aaron (Max Minghella) rebels by exploring other faiths, eventually accepting an invitation from a lovely young Hare Krishna (Kate Bosworth). And mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) finds herself unable to resist her compulsion to break into homes and steal apparently random objects.
Goldberg’s novel ties these characters’ strange journeys together as part of the same quest for transcendence, part of the notion of “gathering the shards” of a broken world at the center of Saul’s Kabbalah studies. There’s a lot of ground to cover in the three central stories, and for the most part, Gyllenhaal provides an efficient blueprint for exploring all of them. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel aren’t always particularly subtle in the way they explore themes visually'a helicopter carries a massive letter “A” through the opening credits; Eliza’s spiritualized spelling method is represented through weird computer animations'but they maintain a tight pacing throughout and an effective focus on the thematic common threads.
And they do it despite the miscasting of Gere as Saul. Gere has been a much picked-on actor over the years, often because he refuses to acknowledge his own limitations as a performer. Here he’s supposed to be an intellectual and a man of intense focus, but come on. Gere may be a brilliant man, but every time he wears wire-rim glasses in a movie, he seems to be all but shouting out, “Look at me, I’m intellectual because my character is wearing wire-rim glasses.” As for “intense focus,” let’s just say that Gere would seem serene while rescuing children from a burning building.
But the way Bee Season deals less with Saul himself than with his impact on his family still allows the film to remain intriguing'until those final five minutes. It’s difficult to explain what’s so misguided about the choice without spoiling it, and on a certain level it might appear that Gyllenhaal, McGehee and Siegel are simply using the same ending Goldberg used in the novel. But the thematic significance of that same event shifts radically, turning a story that warned about the risks of seeking the divine into bland family melodrama. An action may remain the same, but if you change the motivation for the action, everything falls apart.
It’s true that viewers unfamiliar with Goldberg’s novel may be less likely to realize what a disastrous choice went into the film’s ending. They may simply consider the narrative too fragmented, finding it difficult to connect the Spellbound competition drama with the spiritual explorations and mental breakdowns. But everything does fit together, and Bee Season practically demands its powerful original resolution to allow it all to click into place. A few words of dialogue, two or three foolish shots'sometimes that’s all that separates a satisfying film from a mess.