Let us pause now to reflect upon the career of Jerry Seinfeld, a man so fabulously wealthy and successful that he need not utter another word for the rest of his life, knowing his place in comedy history will remain secure. So why tempt fate with an irritating, manic, computer-animated kids' movie? It goes without saying that Seinfeld is perhaps the most coveted free agent in Hollywood, and since his show ended almost a decade ago, he's been willfully perverse in rebuffing the advances of studio executives. Instead of a spin-off, he returned to stand-up. Instead of a three-picture deal, he shot Comedian, a no-budget, no-bullshit documentary about, well, the craft of being a comedian. So while each of his former co-stars suffers the perils of the so-called "Seinfeld Curse," the man who set the bar so high in the first place continues to evade the same scrutiny.
This may explain why, for his first major big- or small-screen role since Seinfeld, he has chosen the post-millennial refuge of the damned: The cartoon caricature. With his huge, watery eyes, boyish tuft of dark hair and button nose, the cloying, needy Barry B. Benson doesn't even look like the 53-year-old actor; he's far closer to an eager young buck like Elijah Wood or Tobey Maguire. Based on the evidence of the finished product, such anonymity undoubtedly suits Seinfeld just fine. Not unlike the live-action, skit-based marketing blitz that preceded it, Bee Movie is a desperate, unfocused collection of bits, shtick and the by-now patented Dreamworks pop-culture references — "Look, Ma, The Graduate! A Few Good Men!" — that sends you out of the theater exhausted and unsatisfied.
Seinfeld wrote the script with a few cohorts from his TV days, and it's not without the occasional, vaguely edgy spark of invention. The central conceit, if you can call it that, involves Barry's attempts to bring a class action suit against the human race for bee slavery and honey pilfering. But the filmmakers' touch is so thudding and uncertain, that at any given moment it seems Bee Movie might be something else entirely: a right-wing parable about the evils of federal regulation; a brainless, whiz-bang roller-coaster ride; or maybe a standard-issue "don't be a drone, be yourself" kids' movie. Where a Pixar effort like The Incredibles jam-packed all of its grown-up references into its first 10 minutes, Bee Movie hems and haws from the start, offering not one but three swooping chase scenes in an attempt to placate the kids before settling into a tepid quasi-romance between Barry and insect-friendly florist Vanessa (Renée Zellweger, drawn to look like an even-more-robotic Jennifer Aniston).
Characters are introduced and discarded, apparently to give Seinfeld's friends something to do: There are plenty of lines for a nerdy Matthew Broderick and a throaty Patrick Warburton, but precious few for truly inspired contributors like Chris Rock or John Goodman, the latter doing an entertaining gloss on his character from O Brother. As the action flashes from one location to the other — the hive one moment, a New York high-rise the next, then the Pasadena Tournament of Roses (don't ask) — the filmmakers desperately try to insert some "Seinlanguage" to placate the adults in the audience. Meanwhile, can anyone blame tykes for getting restless during dud one-liners like "There's nothing worse than a daffodil that's had work done"? Trying to please everyone, Seinfeld ends up pleasing no one — presumably least of all himself. He can hide behind a bee suit for only so long.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.