Bee-ing Jerry Seinfeld

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Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld flies at the Cannes film festival dressed as a giant bee to promote the film, Bee Movie

A couple hundred journalists milled this morning at Carlton Beach, an outdoor restaurant with a pier that juts into the Mediterranean. They looked across the Croisette, the wide oceanside strip that is the Cannes Film Festival's own chic boulevard, and up to the top of the seven-story Carlton Hotel, a white building with wedding-cake ornamentation. There, in a bulbous bee costume, stood Jerry Seinfeld, being attached to a guy wire by several burly technicians. He was about to "fly" about a hundred yards onto the pier, risking life and reputation to promote his animated film Bee Movie. "Anything I hate," Seinfeld said through his body mike, "it's publicity that smacks of any kind of desperation." Then he began his perilous flight, and... [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Decisions, decisions. That is the lot of a journalist covering the Cannes Film Festival, which is one part high art, the rest low hype. This morning, for instance, provided a wrenching dilemma. See the new film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the world-renowned Taiwanese auteur of demanding minimalist dramas? Or attend a promotion for the DreamWorks computer-animated comedy Bee Movie, starring and thought up by Jerry Seinfeld? I went with the bees.

In a 50 min. presentation hosted by DreamWorks ani-maven Jeffrey Katzenberg, Seinfeld related the movie's origins. He and his wife went to dinner with Steven Spielberg (another DreamWorks boss) and his wife. "I'm nervous," Seinfeld said, "because even though I'm Jerry Seinfeld, he's Steven Spielberg." When the chat rate slowed down, Seinfeld mentioned an idea — really, just a joke — for an animated film: a movie about bees called Bee Movie. A few months later, Seinfeld was on the DreamWorks campus, being shown how CGI films were made. And here he was, Seinfeld said, "four years later, because of a lull in the conversation."

Most Hollywood movies can go from script to screen in under a year. Making an animated film, he said, "is like a transatlantic submarine journey," with lengthy stages of writing, recording the voice talent and the nearly endless stages of creating the images; it's not just PhotoShopping. Even now, less than six months before the Nov. 2 U.S. premiere, some of the sequences were not finished. But the script is there, and it's very Jerry.

He plays Barry, a bee who's restless to get out of his home base in New Hive City and see the world. (Like Antz, the first DreamWorks CGI feature, Bee Movie is set in Central Park.) His first outside flight lands him in the home of a friendly florist (voiced by Renée Zellweger) and, in the anything-goes premise, they find they can talk to each other. While Barry's parents fret that she's not right for him ("Is she bee-ish?"), he uncovers a plot to enslave his species and, like a good Jewish bee, acts as his own lawyer in a court case presided over by Oprah Winfrey. There are also guest appearances by Larry King, Chris Rock, Ray Liotta and, apparently, any other stars Seinfeld ran into in those four years.

When Katzenberg asked for questions, the international press was ready. "To bee or not to bee — this is the question," one journalist posed. "Will there be a C and a D movie," another asked, "and maybe an X?" Seinfeld winced at each joke. "The bee pun reflex," he observed with a kind of courtesy, "is something we've struggled with for three years." Warning to the press: Never try to make a comedian laugh.

The Q and A was mere prelude to the flight-of-the-bumble-bee escapade at Carlton Beach a half-hour later. This could have been Katzenberg's idea; as head of Disney animation in its palmy "Renaissance" years (1988-94), he had hosted ever more elaborate industry previews of his films, culminating in a Las Vegas stunt for The Lion King with a live lion onstage. The beast was so fond of Jeffrey, it nearly behaved toward him as another Vegas lion later did to Siegfried's Roy; but Jeffrey escaped basically unmauled. Now, under his auspices, a zillionaire comic would perform a kind of bee bungee jump. And Jerry does his own stunts.

He glided above the Croisette and, with Chris Rock doing play-by-play, landed safely on the pier. Then, after a few moments, the wires moved again and Seinfeld made a return journey. "Jerry Seinfeld forgot his keys," Rock announced, "and is going back to get them." Seinfeld managed to be his usual blasé self, saying as he flew, "They tell me Scorsese did the same thing last year for Departed." When Rock reminded him of the skimpy costume Sacha Baron Cohen wore on the Croisette last year — “You know Borat just showed up in his underwear” — Seinfeld claimed, “I’m wearing the same outfit underneath. In yellow.” And finally he flew down again — three trips in all — before disappearing into a hole in the stage to change back into civvies. The apian aviator pronounced himself unhurt and, more remarkably, unembarrassed. "No desperation here," he assured us, "just good advertising."

An hour later, before a screening of another worthy Asian film, I told my critic colleagues I'd skipped the Hou Hsiao-hsien film to watch Seinfeld fly over Cannes in a bee suit. One of my friends shook her head pityingly. "The things they make you cover," she said.