Writer and director Victor Nunez's last film was the widely
praised but rarely seen RUBY IN PARADISE (1993). His latest picture,
ULEE'S GOLD, which stars Peter Fonda in an exquisite performance, seems
destined to suffer the same fate. An incredible, but understated
character study, it has no special effects and the biggest surprise is
the way the story shuns all the popular movie cliches.
Quiet and withdrawn Vietnam veteran Ulee Jackson (Fonda) has the
honorable profession of beekeeper. ("The bees and I have an
understanding. I take care of them, and they take care of me.") Peter
Fonda, looking, sounding, and acting like his father Henry, gives the
best performance of his career -- an astounding piece of acting. A
complex character who slowly reveals his feelings, but always seems to
have even more bottled up inside. From Ulee's troubled eyes down to
the methodical way he takes off his glasses, this character burns with
some inner rage.
Jaded viewers reading words like "troubled Vietnam vet" and "rage"
will probably have already finished the script in their minds, but they
will be wrong. This is not a typical film. Set in a working class
area of Florida, the fictional story has an authenticity that most
movies only dream of.
Ulee takes care of his two grandkids, teenage Casey and 9-year-old
Penny, played by Jessica Biel and Vanessa Zima, since their father
Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for robbery. Ulee, who always refuses
help from outsiders, does his best to raise the girls. Rebellious
Casey is almost more than he can handle. "You'll pay for the rest of
your life for being a jackass," he warns her as she stomps out of the
house. "Yeah, well, it's better than dying of boredom," she screams
back at him as she gets into her boyfriend's car.
Prominently featured in the film is the art of beekeeping. Ulee
finds solace in the serenity of the bees and satisfaction from the back
breaking work. Whereas many shows lose it in the small details, Nunez
knows how to get everything right. When Ulee comes in after a hard day
lifting the boxes, he takes a nap on the hardwood floor of the dining
room. As he awakens, Virgil Mirano's careful camerawork shoots his
view looking up seeing the tablecloth and the light above and thus
increases the audience's empathy by showing exactly what Ulee's life is
Charles Engstrom's music manages to be melancholy without ever
being maudlin. As a soft piano tune plays, you become one with the
bees and the troubled hero.
One day, Ulee gets a call from Jimmy's two ex-partners in crime,
Eddie Flowers (Steven Flynn) and Ferris Dooley (Dewey Weber). They
have Jimmy's wife, Helen (Christine Dunford). A druggie, she is in bad
shape, and they want Ulee to come and take her away. And, they have
something they need to tell Ulee. What little narrative drive this
character study has will derive from that conversation, but do not be
distracted. The show's bounteous rewards come from the character study
of Ulee. The marvelous supporting cast serve mainly to help Ulee
reveal himself to us.
Ulee has the good fortune to have recently rented out his nearby
cottage to a nurse he calls Miss Hope (Patricia Richardson), but she
asks him to call her Connie. He tells her of his beloved wife who died
six years ago. "Me, I'm divorced twice," she tells him. "No kids
fortunately. I guess, fortunately." As with everything in this
realistic story, their relationship moves in sometimes surprising ways
and the dialog seems more natural than scripted.
The gripping story, which manages to be both intense and peaceful,
eventually comes to a carefully orchestrated and satisfactory
conclusion. Well, partially. These characters, like good neighbors,
are not the sort you like to lose.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes