Ulee's Gold

on June 13, 1997 by Lael Loewenstein
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   The triumph of this bittersweet family drama is Peter Fonda's performance, which by way of its langorous understatement eerily recalls his father Henry. As Florida beekeeper Ulee Jackson, Fonda gives a turn of such quiet yet sustained intensity that it seems like a revelation. Not since "Easy Rider" has Fonda demonstrated such presence onscreen.
   When Ulee's incarcerated son Jimmy (Tom Wood) calls him asking for a favor, the terse family patriarch reluctantly agrees: He'll rescue Jimmy's estranged wife Helen (Christine Dunford) from a pair of Orlando hoodlums holding her hostage for a stockpile of cash that Jimmy owes them. But saving Helen, a recovering drug addict, is no easy task; only with the help of a kindly local nurse (Patricia Richardson of TV's "Home Improvement") and his recalcitrant granddaughters (Vanessa Zima and Jessie Biel) can Ulee wrest control of a volatile situation that holds his family in crisis and his own life in danger.
   Writer/director Victor Nunez ("Ruby in Paradise") sketches a sensitive, delicate portrait of Ulee and his family. That Ulee is a beekeeper by trade resonates on several levels: his careful, methodical approach to the bees incorporates patience and skill in the face of danger, while his inveterate behavior shows resistance to growth and change. Taking a warts-and-all approach to characters, situations and dialogue, Nunez seems to hail from the John Sayles school of realism. That's not always a blessing: "Ulee's Gold" is sometimes painstakingly slow and takes a while before it's truly absorbing. But Fonda's graceful performance makes it worth the wait. Starring Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson and Christine Dunford. Directed and written by Victor Nunez. Produced by Victor Nunez, Peter Saraf and Sam Gowan. An Orion release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min
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