Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, fresh from The Deep End, turn to a novel by Myla Goldberg. And on the evidence it's difficult to see how anyone could have thought there was a movie in it, even someone in the full flush of the spelling-bee documentary, Spellbound. Fictional spelling bees, about which we must speak intuitively rather than empirically, are bound to be low on suspense, and the ones here are so telegraphed that you always know what's going to happen before it happens. The principal speller is an Oakland sixth-grader (Flora Cross) whose eyes-closed technique permits her to "see" the word, often with the help of computer animation, the letters swirling around her head like a flock of tiny seagulls. Her father, a Judaic scholar, amounts to the type of fantasy figure for whom the female addicts of Lifetime movies would be willing to kill. He's Richard Gere, to begin with (designer eyeglasses, ermine coiffure); and he does all the cooking around the house; he plays the violin to his son's cello in after-dinner duets; and when the neglected daughter shows an unexpected aptitude for spelling, he volunteers to be her full-time coach ("I'm pretty good at this sort of thing, you know"), filling her head with occult lore about letters being a conduit to the ear of God. Despite all this, and to the hair-pulling exasperation of the Lifetime addict, no one in the family is happy with him, especially his wife, the exhaustingly tense Juliette Binoche, who lost her parents in a childhood car wreck, and who now goes off on mysterious errands, staying out till all hours of the night, breaking into anonymous houses for unknown reasons, having flashbacks to the fatal crash, and eventually serving to illustrate her husband's classroom lessons on "tikkun olam," the repair of the shattered. The newly neglected son (Max Minghella), in what could have been a rich source of humor, finds an alternative path to God's ear, that of the Hare Krishnas, lured there by a Veggie Barbie played by Kate Bosworth. (Neither the son nor the daughter appears to have a friend in the world.) The entire thing attains a degree of pretension that might have been amusing if it weren't so boring. (2005) — Duncan Shepherd
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