The first thing you notice about Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold is that he looks much better than he probably should, given his legendary bad boy rep (this is the guy whose LSD-induced babble inspired John Lennon to write "She Said, She Said"). The second thing you notice is that he has haunting eyes and a ragged charisma you wouldn't expect from someone whose best-known movies include Cannonball Run.
Ulee's Gold has been much hyped, at least as much as a small film about a middle-aged beekeeper can be hyped in a summer when Men in Black makes the cover of Newsweek. The main object of attention is Fonda, whose performance in the title role has been given something of a prodigal son's reception by the entertainment press. This is probably mostly because he's both a Fonda and, thanks to Easy Rider, a generational icon. But the hoopla is largely deserved.
Ulee's Gold is the work of writer-director Victor Nunez, who also made 1993's Ruby in Paradise, one of the best American indie films of the decade. Like that movie, this quiet drama is set in the hardscrabble side of Florida, in the places where Mickey Mouse and Gianni Versace are the last things on anyone's mind. But unlike Ruby in Paradise, which didn't tell a story so much as capture a bittersweet year in a young woman's life, Ulee's Gold has a plot and a moral, both of which burden it at times.
It's about Ulee Jackson (Fonda), a taciturn widower mourning his late wife and raising two granddaughters in a backwater town outside Orlando. As the story slowly unfolds, it turns out the girls' father, Ulee's son Jimmy, is in prison on a robbery conviction--and as far as Ulee's concerned, he could be on another planet. But when Jimmy calls with a desperate plea for Ulee to save Jimmy's wife Helen (Christine Dunford) from the drug addiction that's killing her, Ulee gets drawn into his son's world. He brings Helen home to her estranged daughters and in the process befriends Connie, the pretty nurse across the street (Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement). And the emotionally distant Ulee, who early on in the film tells his granddaughters, "We don't ask outsiders for help," learns to reach out.
The story and character outlines could have come from a made-for-TV sobfest, and sometimes the dialogue is nearly that obvious ("You're very nearly a good man, Ulee Jackson, but you try too hard," Connie tells him). Much is made of Ulee's profession as a metaphor for his life--as a beekeeper, he keeps his hives in order the same way he keeps his family in order; he refuses assistance with the hard work of extracting honey from the hives; when the bees stray, he gently guides them back to their home. Even the gold of the title carries a double meaning, referring both to Ulee's honey and his troubled clan. And late in the film, we find out Ulee's full name is Ulysses, giving mythological weight to his emotional odyssey.
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What makes this potentially mawkish concoction work is a combination of emotional subtlety in the characterizations and gentleness in the direction. Most of the cast is strong--although Richardson never entirely loses the soft-focus glow of a TV actress--and Nunez gives them room to breathe. After establishing the somewhat unwieldy set-up, he pulls back and lets things happen slowly, in long takes and quiet close-ups. He is a director more interested in characters than events, and his refusal to suffocate the story with plot twists is refreshing. Although the ending is predictable and too pat--the characters all evolve the way you know they will--the film still manages to be convincing.
That's mostly thanks to Fonda, whose performance is striking, especially given his spotty resumé. At first, it seems like he's just doing a Clint Eastwood imitation, all steely self-reliance and nearly-whispered credos. But Fonda's up to something more complicated and less heroic than that. It comes out most strongly in a heated exchange with Helen, when Ulee's anger and frustration unmask the vulnerability beneath his resilience. There's a precision to Fonda's stiff-backed hobble, to the way he gingerly removes his wire-rim glasses, that hints at deep wells of barely controlled pain. He is the imperfect, graceful soul of this imperfect, graceful film.
P.S. OK, now that the movie review is out of the way, there is one environmental caveat I feel morally obligated to make for Knoxville moviegoers.
The environment in question is the Terrace Theatre, the only place in town you're likely to see a low-budget drama like Ulee's Gold. The caveat is this--wait for it to come out on video. Although the movie's lush Florida swamps are probably more impressive on the big screen, at least the video won't be accompanied by a persistent, rattling buzz on the soundtrack that gnaws away relentlessly at the film's meditative serenity. Of the many indignities I've seen foisted on Terrace audiences--lousy lighting, poor sound, repeated breaks in films or equipment--this was easily the most obnoxious. A theater employee informed of the problem promised blithely, "Oh, it fades away after the first 15 minutes." It does not.
--Jesse Fox Mayshark
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