Thrill junkies out for a rush from Ulee's Gold should find another summer flick pronto. This low-budget indie from writer and director Victor Nunez limps like a tortoise on Prozac compared with current adrenalized epics such as Con Air and the big badda-boom sequels to Jurassic Park and Speed. What can you do with a movie that takes its own sweet time, minimizes technology and maximizes character? Treasure it, for starters.
Peter Fonda is already generating deserved Oscar talk as the reclusive Florida beekeeper Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson, a widower and Vietnam veteran who is trying to raise two troubled granddaughters — teenager Casey (Jessica Biel) and 9-year-old Penny (Vanessa Zima). Their druggie mother, Helen (Christine Dunford), has run off. Ulee's son, Jimmy (Tom Wood), the girls' father, is rotting in jail for bank robbery. It's up to Ulee — whose adored wife, Penelope, has been dead for six years — to stay the course. That he does. What he can't do is open up emotionally. It will be Ulee's odyssey — the Homeric parallel is intentional — to endure a series of conflicts, some violent, before he can restore his home and his heart.
Fonda is a revelation, fusing implosive force and tender feelings to create a classically memorable screen character. At 58, Fonda gives the best performance of his career. A wise-ass might say, "What career?" It's been 28 years since Easy Rider made Fonda a '60s icon in long hair and leather as Captain America, the stoned biker who mistakenly thought a cocaine score could buy him freedom. Fonda produced and co-wrote it with Terry Southern and director Dennis Hopper — who played his sidekick, Billy. Budgeted at less than $600,000, Easy Rider earned more than $60 million worldwide and made Fonda a player. He soon lost momentum, stifled by films that went straight to video or oblivion. Audiences, depending on their age group, see him as Henry Fonda's son or Jane Fonda's brother or Bridget Fonda's father.
When Fonda came to the Sundance Film Festival with Ulee's Gold, in January, he admitted that in playing Ulee, he felt the strong, stoic presence of dad Henry — who died at 77, in 1982, shortly after winning his first Oscar, for On Golden Pond. Peter's resemblance to Henry is uncanny. In looks, bearing, voice and gesture (watch the way he removes his glasses and looks up with a world-weary squint), Peter finds his father in Ulee. He also finds his younger self in Ulee's maverick son. At Jimmy's age, Peter — a self-proclaimed King Drug — had been busted for grass and felt alienated by his father's disapproval.
In an early scene, Ulee is called away from the backbreaking work of harvesting the premium tupelo honey, superior to bakery-grade, in the Florida panhandle. Jimmy has phoned him from jail. Helen is sick and living with Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber), the scum who robbed the bank with Jimmy and got away. Jimmy wants Ulee to rescue Helen. "You were a big jungle fighter in Nam," says Jimmy. Ulee answers, "She left her kids — your kids — remember? As far as I'm concerned, she can just stay gone." It's only when Jimmy adds, "You're all I got, Pop," that his father relents.
Ulee's visit with Eddie and Ferris is an eye-opener. It seems that Jimmy had held out on them and stashed $100,000. Eddie says that they want the money in a week, or they'll come after Ulee and the girls. Picking up the drugged Helen, Ulee sees bruises on her wrist from the ropes they used to tie her to the bed. "She's a sweet piece of ass, even if she is a mother," says Ferris with a lustful glint. A look of cold fury crosses Ulee's face.
Ulee's anger is the first chink in his armor. Fonda skillfully uncovers feelings that Ulee has long kept dormant. At home, Helen — going cold turkey — lashes out at him: "Everyone's life you ever touched is fucked." Casey wears short skirts and gets tattooed in defiance of Ulee's attempts to keep a lid on her hormones. Even his nurse neighbor (Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement, in a warmly sympathetic turn) can't get too close.
It's Penny, aching to reconnect with her mother but possessed of Ulee's deep reserve, whom he lets in. Ulee tells the girl about Vietnam and the members of his platoon — all killed except for him ("Your grandpa was tricky, that's why I made it out"). Crucially, he lets Penny share his work. She draws pictures in school of Ulee gathering bees that were scared off in the marshes. Penny longs for Ulee to bring her family together, like the bees.
This might be painfully sappy and obvious in the hands of a writer and director less gifted than Nunez. His three previous features — Gal Young 'Un (1979), A Flash of Green (1984) and Ruby in Paradise (1993), which introduced Ashley Judd — also are set in Nunez's native Florida. He knows the area well but knows the people even better. In Ulee's Gold, Nunez finds a striking lyricism in simple lives that inspires an uncommonly fine cast and ranks him as a world-class filmmaker.
Violence is more a threat than a reality in the film. Nunez shows his un-Hollywood hand when Ulee throws a gun into the swamp, ending any chance for a cliched shootout. The real action in Ulee's Gold is internal and character-driven. Ulee does it the hard way, trusting the audience to appreciate quality goods. Ditto the movie. This is no bakery-grade honey. Ulee's Gold, a triumph for Fonda and Nunez, is tupelo prime.