November 9-15, 2005

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Bee Season

Photograph by Richard Foreman
Be Gere Now: Richard Gere plays a scholar of esoterica in in 'Bee Season.'

No Buzz

Gere smells, Binoche has spells; 'Bee Season' is spacey, but the East Bay has never looked better

By Richard von Busack

NORTHERN CALIFORNIANS pride themselves on their tolerance. With that tolerance comes a price: Their minds are so open that anything can just walk right in and make itself at home. That's the reason our local citizens packed theaters showing What the Bleep Do We Know!? To be sure, such spaciness is more likable than the materialism in uglier urban zones. There are worse ways to live than to walk through life in a rosy haze of transcendentalism, picking different modes of spirituality "like a salad bar," as San Francisco's Victor Wong said in Big Trouble in Little China, when explaining Eastern religion to a truck driver. Bee Season doesn't make Northern California look any less like Jonathan Swift's cloud-kingdom Laputa. Rather, it celebrates our regional specialness with a story that's as warmhearted as it is cotton-headed.

Imagine Richard Gere as Rabbi Michael Lerner—well, he's a nationally known, corduroy-wrapped scholar named Saul Naumann. His searching into the cabala—Jehovah's Own game of Boggle—has led to a brick wall. Saul home-schools his two kids, but he is always turning his countenance on one while neglecting the other. Currently, Saul is pressuring his daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), the narrator. He wonders if her ability to win spelling championships is divinely inspired; the two of them hole up to concentrate on communication with God.

Ignored and sorry for it, his son, Aaron (Max Minghella), rebels by taking up with a blonde Hare Krishna (Kate Bosworth in a deft bit of casting). And the lady of the house, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), pursues some vague intrigue that involves her prowling around the abandoned houses of strangers. Binoche restages her grieving and religious crisis from Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, and it works twice. Certainly, it is more intriguing than Saul's problem with God not answering him. It's a cruel thing to say about an inoffensive Buddhist, but the fire in this actor is quenched. Gere has the color and appeal of an extinguished coal.

Bee Season's mix of local vistas and local improbabilities may be especially frustrating here. You gape to see a Berkeley kid not being wise to the come-ons of the Hare Krishnas. Another surprise comes when we witness the Oakland Tribune sponsoring a spelling bee (the paper has been a trove of typos for more than a decade now). Lay the blame for the stopping and starting of plots on the adaptation of Myla Goldberg's four-character novel. And instances of computer animation—a graphite pencil shedding letters, or an origami bird shaking its wings and taking flight—are pretty but essentially childish.

We may not know where God lives, but local directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel certainly know how to make the Bay Area look like heaven. The shingled brown Victorians of Berkeley are as ancient and serious as the stone buildings of Cambridge, even though they are lit with our incomparable Pacific sun and mist. It has been said that silent-film director F.W. Murnau's skill showed in the dramatic way his camera went from city to country, and from darkness to light. Bee Season's splendid East Bay cityscapes have just that excitement, in the contrast between air and water, and land and sky.

Movie Times Bee Season (PG-13), directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, based on a novel by Myla Goldberg, photographed by Gilles Nutgen and starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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