There’s no denying that writer/director Jack Eve’s got ambition. Watching a single frame of genre mash-up Bees Make Honey makes that abundantly clear. With bold strokes, Jack sets about combining aspects of straight period pieces and film noir mysteries, with a splash of cheek akin to the comedic works of Gilbert and Sullivan and the sounds of punk-rock to heighten the absurd. Though not all of it gels in the way it’s clearly envisioned, Bees Make Honey’s tale of lust, greed, and murder will delight audiences with its gorgeous costuming, go-for-broke performances, and ultimately clever narrative.
Halloween 1934 and the homestead of widowed socialite Honey (Alice Eve) is abuzz with the merriment of her costumed guests. Not all is bubbling beverages, nose candy, and gold-covered delight because, Honey suspects a killer blends in among the revelers. You see, just one year ago, at the same party, Honey’s husband was murdered and the case remains unsolved. To confirm her suspicions, she calls upon newly-minted Inspector Shoerope (Wilf Scolding) to assist her in sussing out the culprit by joining the party in costume himself to question the guests incognito. As the party rages on in the background, the central players reveal themselves and, in doing so, their true intentions are known.
Putting together a period piece that stands out requires a clear vision of purpose. To that end, costume designer Francisco Rodriguez-Weil (The Mountain Between Us) builds off of Jack’s script to ensure that the entire cast looks the part of which both period and festivities designate. Whether as Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chaplin, Captain Hook, a cowboy, or a queen bee, each character is thoughtfully dressed in a manner befitting the station of the character, while the attire also sneaks in some clever hints as to the truth of the masquerading individuals. For example, Shoerope (not pronounced how you think, but you have to applaud the name) is the cowboy – not a specific one, except when introduced as “Mr. Wayne” – who serves as Honey’s public chaperone for the evening. It’s quickly learned that his particular outfit was previously worn by the dearly departed, which makes Shoerope an unwilling participant in a cowboy switch, a term used for a stuntman taking the place of an actor. As for the hostess herself, Honey’s dressed in a beautiful yellow and black dress – a literal queen bee as everyone at the soiree hovers around her, syncing their movements to her needs. Honey is both apiarist and bee, in clear control of everything around her, but also recognizing that she’s part of the rhythm of her hive. This is, of course, established via the combination of Alice’s performance (a line delivery here, soft glance there) and delightful sound cues (a hypnotic hum that seems to follow Honey everywhere, especially when trying to regain control of a potential disastrous situation). To delve further into the hidden meanings presented through mere costumes would ruin some of the fun within Bees, and what’s a film noir without mystery?
Herein lies the best part of Bees – a bit of trickery that the audience doesn’t suspect due to a twist in the usual noir style. Jack – as any audience member will quickly see – likes to take a pinch of this and a dash of that to create his tale, so it may surprise you that Shoerope is a bit of a dope. Frankly, he’s the worst inspector since Clouseau, but he’s the perfect distraction possible from what’s really going on. Scolding plays Shoerope as naively earnest to great detriment, yet strong of will. These traits make him an honorable white knight lacking a key ingredient for sleuthing. Whether you figure out Jack’s rouse or not prior to the conclusion’s revelation is irrelevant, as the mere attempt shakes up expectations enough to put the audience off their “Who Done It?” guessing game. It doesn’t hurt that playing this assemblage of scrupulous characters is a band of actors having an absolute blast chewing the scenery. Alice’s Honey drops f-bombs rather than daring to slap a face, though received as the same by the recipient, Joshua McGuire’s (About Time) family friend Mr. Conick manages a level of enthusiasm that often feels as though McGuire’s channeling Tom Hulce’s mesmerizing interpretation of Wolfgang Motzart in Amadeus, Trevor Eve’s (She’s Out of My League) Commissioner maintains the bold, slap of reason in any conversation, and Anatole Taubman’s (Captain America: The First Avenger) Mr. Werner is practically a caricature of a 1930s German brownshirt. With performances delivered so large, you’re going to think the cast is playing to the poor sods at the back of the playhouse and not the ones sitting in the theater.
Not all of the ideas within Bees blend well nor fully make sense. In one scene, Honey and Shoerope engage in an apple bobbing contest and the music dulls each time they dunk their heads below water. The intent is likely to put the audience in the water with the pair, but there doesn’t seem to be a need for it to happen beyond a desire to experiment with sound. As it adds nothing to the moment and is never used again, it stands out, thus potentially breaking the audience from the action. Similarly, as central characters are introduced, they’re briefly frozen as if captured in a sepia-toned photograph. This aspect fits nicely with the overall design of the film and does wonders for the audience in signifying who – among all of the partygoers – is really worth our attention. That said, these characters also receive brief vignettes to serve as background which offer up a chance to see these characters outside of the party: observing them shooting clay pigeons, selecting costumes for the party, or serving as Hitler’s wingman (one of those, “you need to see it” moments). While these glimpses are valuable to answer questions known or unknown, the fact that each vignette is sped up and features a modern punk-rock sound breaks from the traditional feel of the rest of the film. If the intent is to accentuate the vignettes, it does that in spades, but it’s also a heavy distraction from the rest of the film as the tones are utterly disparate. Jack Eve is clearly a man inspired by the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Guy Ritchie, and the previously mentioned Gilbert and Sullivan. Sometimes Bees benefits from these stylistic flourishes, though they mainly don’t pay off in the way he clearly envisioned.
For a second feature debut, Jack Eve demonstrates some serious zeal for cinema. While it gets to be a bit too much – perhaps a little overzealous in the attempts to do everything at once – Bees Make Honey is, at its core, a clever noir that just gets gummed up by some of the genre mashing. In particular, as a film that establishes itself as a film noir, the delivery is far more farcical. Despite struggling against the inconsistency, the performances are fun, the characters are ridiculous, and the narrative maintains enough surprises to keep you locked in until the party’s over.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.