Ulee's Gold

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Victor Nuņez

REVIEWED: 07-03-97

ULEE JACKSON, A folksy, slow-moving beekeeper, has a problem. His son is in jail, and his son's deeply evil, date-raping buddies have kidnapped his strung-out daughter-in-law. Let's not forget the small matter of a Coleman cooler full of cash. And let's not forget one other thing: His hives are ready to be harvested, and they can't wait. From this tangled skein of circumstances director Victor Nuñez (along with producers Peter Saraf and Sam Gowan) weave a wandering, intriguing and finally rewarding movie about family, labor, and the healing power of nature.

Peter Fonda (who's really starting to look like his dad) plays Ulee Jackson, an emotionally scarred widow and Vietnam vet who seems adept only at dealing with winged insects. He lives near the swamps with his two granddaughters, Casey, a saucy teen, and Penny, an adorable 10-year-old. Things seem pretty dead on an emotional level for the Jackson three, and Casey has taken to wearing purple lipstick and hanging out with boys who can drive, and we all know what that means. Meanwhile, there's a fetching nurse living across the street, but Ulee doesn't notice. He only has eyes for bees.

Into this stasis step a couple of outlaws (greasy bad-boys straight out of a Dukes of Hazard episode) and everything starts to change. Though there's a sort of action-crime subplot to Ulee's Gold, it only acts as a catalyst. The real movement of the story is an emotional one: As Ulee is forced to deal with his incarcerated son, his furious daughter-in-law and the perky nurse across the way, he begins to shed his protective armor and starts to notice that he's surrounded by people who love him.

All this happens slowly. Fonda talks slowly and moves slowly (so as not to alarm the bees, he says, but he does it even when there aren't any bees around). Slowly he tends the hives, and Nuñez devotes a good amount of footage to the care, moving and processing of bees and honey. These tasks Ulee performs alone out in the countryside, day after day. It's a little odd, for an audience accustomed to faster-moving summer movies, to watch these long sequences. At first I kept waiting for something to happen; for someone to at least get stung, but then after a while I began to hope that nothing special would happen after all. It became increasingly clear that these scenes were about a communion between Ulee and nature, and about the redemptive power of labor, and it would have been disappointing if Ulee had suddenly been attacked by a swarm of killer bees.

This sense of slowness and proportion is probably the most interesting, admirable aspect of Ulee's Gold, but the balance is a delicate one. Nuñez keeps throwing it off by having the other characters change too fast--the teenage daughter goes from a mini-skirted metalhead to a demure farm girl in an afternoon, and the spitting, cursing, insane drug-addict of a daughter-in-law (she's hooked on roofies, they declare solemnly) has a similarly speedy change of heart. One day she's restrained and wetting herself; the next she's solemnly getting Ulee a drink of water from the tap. Ah, a brimming glass of forgiveness.

And though Nuñez is insistent about using bees as metaphor, he's also a little sloppy. Of course, nothing is more annoying than having a particular meaning crammed down your throat, but Nuñez doesn't even seem to bother to gather his hints and imagery into what might be a larger sense of meaning. Is a family like a hive? Is Ulee like a bee? Are we all just social insects deep down? All these comparisons pop up in the dialogue; none of them have that transcendent zip of energy that comes from a thoughtful, well-made comparison, and all of them float around in the dialogue without much visual reinforcement.

Nuñez is, at least, trying to say something, even if he tends to wander off at times; but in the character of Ulee, and in Fonda's performance, the movie stays right on track. He does a great job portraying a shy, inarticulate character who expresses himself through action rather than words, and what's more, by the end we all know a little more about our friends the bees.

--Stacey Richter

Ulee's Gold

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