Saw two movies this holiday week-end for the first time in maybe a decade and while the two could not be more disparate in theme and tone (The Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men and Seinfeld’s Bee Movie), the combined experience of the audience reactions reinforced my generally cranky instincts about our deep investment in genre convention.
Like most of the pro critics, I found No Country pretty fantastic. The first half hour takes you right away; the clockwork structure, the breathtaking cinematography, the acting. Even the Coen brothers characteristic vices (easy glibness, playing with violence for effect) are replaced by a seriousness about the characters. And yet, most of the audience in the full suburban theater I saw it in
weren't happy with the ending. They voiced their disappointment out loud: “I want my money back," "It was such a good movie at the beginning.” I obviously don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it’s fair to say that the movie undermines your expectations for a certain kind of conventional Western conclusion. The ending is totally consistent with the structural and narrative terms of the movie, but my audience didn’t care. They wanted Clint Eastwood. It reminded me once again how deeply invested we are in genre conventions and how little tolerance we have for cultural expressions that don't follow the rules.
Speaking of cultural conventions, Bee Movie falls right into the sarcastic center of kid culture these days, with the same knowing, ironic tone of the revolting Shrek franchise, and lots of screen time filled up with half-hearted set-pieces satirizing (or pretending to satirize) adult culture (Larry King, Goodfellas, The Graduate). There is even a twenty minute court-room drama parody. What? I realize these things are supposed to keep the adults entertained (aren't we clever that we can recognize scenes from other famous movies), but it seems more like a failure of the imagination. When did kid movies become nothing more than an excuse to create set pieces for easy jokes? My kids stared at the screen just hoping something would happen beyond listening to the Seinfeld character do his Bee stand-up routine. Do people really like this stuff? A bee version of Larry King?
But has anyone else mentioned the movie is practically an allegory for Seinfeld’s own professional life. (Spoiler alert: don't read further if the plot of Bee Movie is important to your viewing satisfaction). A bee rebels against the conventions of the hive because he doesn’t want to do one job for the rest of his life. When the bee’s rebellion is surprisingly successful and they get all the honey they've ever made back, the hive stops production because they have more honey than they know what to do with. The bees slip into aimless and unsatisfying lives of leisure. Unfortunately, this has disastrous effects on the natural world (no pollination, no flowers, etc) and the bees realize they need to get back to work to save the world. Maybe it wasn’t all about the honey after all? Sucks to become irrelevant, doesn’t it?