A strange portrait of an even stranger man,
Burt's Buzz profiles the rugged Burt Shavitz, founder and onetime proprietor of powerhouse nature brand Burt's Bees. Director Jody Shapiro ( Green Porno) and executive producer Isabella Rossellini set out to do the impossible: probe an icon who would likely prefer not to be probed. Burt spends the better part of 88 minutes so enigmatic and laconic that many will feel perplexed and frustrated by this trip into his world. Much of the picture takes place in the Maine backwoods, where Shavitz ekes out an ascetic existence as a working-class hermit-cum-apiarist -- a lifestyle that seems brutally at odds with his celebrity in far-flung places such as Taipei. Shapiro attempts to pull us into the lyricism of Shavitz's world with a kind of cinematic Virgilian eclogue of life in rural New England, but the picture doesn't quite work out that way -- at least, not initially. For the first 20 or 30 minutes, the pacing is so anemic that we feel deadened -- as Pauline Kael once wrote, "We look for more in the frame than is there." The documentary improves somewhat when it gets our attention with an explanation of Burt's odd, disturbing history. The story of Burt's Bees essentially begins with the relationship between beekeeper Shavitz and a woman named Roxanne Quimby, a onetime waitress and single mother who was given a lift by Burt in 1984 while she was hitchhiking beside a Maine highway. The two became lovers and -- after Burt pulled ingenious entrepreneurial ideas from 19th century tomes and handed them to Roxanne on a silver platter -- business partners. Their enterprise grew to multimillion-dollar proportions and relocated to North Carolina, but by the early '90s, Quimby began to systematically phase Shavitz out of Burt's Bees. When she learned of Burt's affairs with one or more twentysomething coeds, she used the knowledge of his infidelity as a leverage point to threaten him with "sexual-harassment charges," and induced him to sign a contract that systematically cut him out of the business (aside from compensation for the use of his image). Cut to 2014: Quimby is worth a fortune, Burt lives a very meager life, and the two are permanently estranged. Many will conclude, not unreasonably, that Quimby is a manipulative and avaricious person, especially vis-á-vis the kind and gentle Shavitz. Her refusal to be interviewed in the documentary points to her culpability, and suggests that she may actually feel more than an iota of shame. The whole Shavitz/Quimby chronicle gives us a feeling of queasy impotence: Even if one were to protest Burt's Bees as a brand based on the shaky ethics of its corporate history, it wouldn't matter since the company was sold to Clorox for nearly a billion dollars. The damage has already been done; Quimby has raised the term "filthy rich" to a whole new level. When we hear Burt's persistent claims of Zen-like inner peace and satisfaction, we may conclude that he isn't some kind of sagacious mystic given his expressed indifference to wealth and luxury, but delusional -- after all, who in his right mind would feel indifferent toward a billion-dollar fortune that should be partly his? But there is a rare, telling moment of vulnerability late in this picture when Burt speaks of Roxanne; his eyes begin to well up with tears and his face hardens with pain, and he expresses the hope that he never has to see her or talk to her again. The film seems to imply that she touched his heart while slyly using him and plotting against him, and that her betrayal shut him down -- by extension, the whole "Zen" thing of his is a clever shield against helplessness. Then, deeper complexities emerge: Shavitz's brother turns up in an interview and tells us that Burt has always been sealed off from emotion, and that even decades before Roxanne's appearance in his life, something stunted his capacity for intimacy. But the question of what that "something" is seems distant and evasive, some early-life trauma that Burt may not even be aware of, let alone willing to articulate in front of a camera. It is even possible, we reason, that this elusiveness could have caused a rift in the Quimby/Shavitz relationship long before Quimby thought of her Machiavellian scheme. It's impossible to tell with any certainty, of course, but one should laud Shapiro & co. for trying. Less welcome are the long, tedious stretches of this documentary that depict Burt's PR activity in Asian conference halls and hotels, especially a mid-film depiction of this social kibitzing that seems to go on forever. These segments feel lugubrious and expendable, and try our patience. In the end, there is great material here for a nonfiction character study, though the filmmakers could have improved things considerably by tightening up the slackened pacing of the first 30 minutes and eliminating the footage that doesn't directly attempt to climb inside of Burt's psyche, motivations, and curious diffidence. Burt's Buzz is fitfully successful, but it probably would have worked much better as a 30- or 40-minute short.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern