To get into a good-lovin' mood before each date, a college housemate of mine croaked along to Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" while blasting it through his stereo. My fondness for the song survived. So as the end credits for Ulee's Gold unrolled against the robust lyricism of Morrison belting out "She's as sweet as tupelo honey ...," I felt rewarded for having sat through this lackluster local-color film. It's about a beekeeper named Ulee Jackson (Peter Fonda) trying to harvest a truckload of, yes, tupelo honey. (The highest grade of honey comes from the flowers of tupelo trees, which grow in the marshlands where Ulee maintains his apiaries.) The incongruously harsh plot kicks in when the scurrilous ex-partners of his convict son scheme to get their hands on a hundred grand of stolen cash.
The moviemaker, Victor Nunez (A Flash of Green, Ruby in Paradise), sees this middle-aged man as one of Morrison's "knights in armor intent on chivalry." He's been raising two granddaughters in the Florida Panhandle while their mother lives a wild life in Orlando. Ulee, short for Ulysses, is a Vietnam vet who says he survived jungle warfare only because he was tricky and lucky (like the Ulysses of myth). He mourns for a wife who, like Ulysses' spouse, was named Penelope; the daughter-in-law who sets the plot in motion is named Helen, as in "of Troy."
By the end of Ulee's risky voyage into Florida's underworld, he learns to distinguish between the moral weakness of his son and daughter-in-law and the pure evil of the lowlifes who threaten them. He opens up and accepts the help of an old friend, the local sheriff, and a new friend, the attractive nurse (Patricia Richardson) who rents a home from Ulee right across the street. Unfortunately, Nunez's script diagrams these lessons baldly -- he turns the big screen into the oblong top of a Whitman's sampler. You get the chocolate-covered-cherry homily here, the caramel-fudge moral there.
Ulee argues with his hormone-addled teen-age grandchild (Jessica Biel) and reads a bedtime story to his sweet grade-school grandchild (Vanessa Zima), who's named Penny. He makes his feral junkie daughter-in-law, Helen (Christine Dunford), go cold turkey, and wrests the truth about some stowed-away loot out of his ne'er-do-well son (Tim Wood). Despite the criminal perils and classical portents (even the beekeeping is Virgilian), Nunez's direction is as self-consciously homey as a floral welcome mat. To upscale audiences, his cozy treatment of stressful incidents may give off a rough-hewn allure, at once contemplative and redolent of "real life." Others who straggle into the art house might applaud Nunez's fix on the knotty problems of career and family that afflict all kinds of working people even when the economy is said to be booming.
But it's possible to sympathize with Nunez's aims, to enjoy his views of the tupelo swamp and of Ulee's skill at his job, and still find this movie frustrating. Nunez's attempt to free himself of affectation results in a reverse affectation. Sure, Ulee has to be spare in movement and alert and relaxed among his bees, but the sound design is overmuted; it muffles everything, including the jounce of Ulee's truck as he drives away from his apiaries. Early on, Ulee asks Penny whether she likes to feel sad, and she says it does make you feel quiet inside. It's a nice line, but Nunez wants to make us feel quiet inside by keeping his movie as soft and calm as he can, inside and out.
Nunez resolves to be anti-melodramatic; on principle he de-emphasizes any thrill that might shake his focus on the characters. Yet the characters aren't all that complicated, and Nunez's anti-jolt moviemaking weakens our ability to identify with them. To take two tiny examples: When Ulee wakes from sleeping on the dining room floor and, later, when he regains consciousness in a hospital bed, Nunez shoots the ceiling lamp and then an IV drip from Ulee's point of view. But in each case he first shows us Ulee's face -- thus erasing any shock value and any chance for us to experience Ulee's dislocation as if through his own eye sockets. No editor or cameraman imposed these choices on Nunez: Not only did he direct and write this film, but he also operated his own camera and edited the film and produced it. That makes him a quintuple threat -- and I do mean threat.
Nunez's self-conscious sensitivity doesn't ensure that Ulee's Gold is more aesthetic or moral than the average family-in-jeopardy suspense film. If anything, it makes the gaudier characters, like Dunford's detoxifying Helen, even more attention-getting and lurid. The soft-spoken verbal assaults hurled by Steven Flynn as the half-rational scumbag and Dewey Weber as his sexually rabid henchman overpower the rest of the movie. My favorite moment comes when Ulee approaches the bad guys in a pool room: Flynn has such languid intensity that he seems to go into slow-mo. But whenever this film gets a hotfoot it cools off too quickly. (The crime part of the story climaxes in a moment of rank stupidity.)
Fonda comes through with a sturdy performance as the stoic patriarch whose certainties are shaken by events. In a way, you can read his portrayal as a salute to his father Henry's public rectitude and strength and also perhaps as a criticism of Henry's private distance toward his children. But Peter Fonda hasn't honed his craft nonstop for decades the way his father had at Peter's age (he's now 58), and he can't bring anything more to his part than what's in the script. Nunez may love his actors, but he dampens their electricity. When Fonda and the perky Richardson connect emotionally over tea, Nunez simply cuts between lingering close-ups. After confessing that she's twice-divorced, she says she knows he disapproves; we can't assess her reading of him because Nunez fails to put his reaction in the movie frame.
Ulee's Gold is the kind of small film that makes you feel dismissive, not protective. It's too proud of its modesty. The script restricts the characters' possibilities -- they mosey down predictable paths. Visually, it has a bad case of director's cramp. Nunez's company co-produced Ulee's Gold with Clinica Estetico, the production company of that instinctive movie-man Jonathan Demme. But it has the simultaneously high-minded and preformatted feel of a film destined for television. It's as if Nunez had shot it in pan-and-scan.
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