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Easy Beekeeper

Ulee's Gold
John Bramley

To Bee or Not to Bee: Peter Fonda turns apiarist in 'Ulee's Gold.'

It's a bumpy trip from 'Easy Rider' to 'Ulee's Gold' for Peter Fonda

By Rob Nelson

PETER FONDA has been garnering raves for his performance as a beleaguered beekeeper in Ulee's Gold; some eager blurbmeisters have even made the claim that it's his best work in decades. Damnation by faint praise aside (is Fonda's next-best work in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry?), the real irony here is that the actor's comeback role seems the antithesis of Captain America, his rebel biker from 1969's Easy Rider. It's as though Ulee's Gold set itself the task of showing what 30 years of the real world might do to a Deadhead.

Captain America's superheroism stemmed from waving his freak-flag high before going out in a blaze of glory--Ulee's an independent businessman who cleans up his personal life by protecting his family from sex, drugs and rock & roll. Where Captain America's gold was cocaine, the beekeeper's is tupelo honey--and his word. The common denominator is Fonda's laconic-hippie demeanor--which, evoking Eastwood, looks no less silly now than in Easy Rider, since the years in between never produced a career that would justify such a Method Actor's turn. (Son of a legend, Peter Fonda carries the weight of an icon but not the accomplishment.)

Like Easy Rider, Ulee's Gold is a Western in disguise: Fonda's Ulee is a loner saddled with past demons (the death of his wife, a stint in Vietnam) who's called upon to rescue a helpless woman (his drug-addicted daughter-in-law) from an enemy tribe (two redneck thieves) with ties to the loner (they were in cahoots with his son, now in jail). Entrusted to corral the family herd, Ulee rounds up bees for a living--a syrupy metaphor that the film extracts to no end. "The bees and I have an understanding," he mumbles at one point. "I take care of them, they take care of me."

This reciprocal deal requires Ulee to stay calm amid the threat of getting stung; if either his bees or his brood sense fear, it makes them panic. Hence, his teenage granddaughter (Jessica Biel) initially favors buzzing around with her boyfriend and listening to loud music, but she returns to the nest once Gramps starts playing king bee with a bit more confidence. How swiftly the kid comes around to making cookies with her younger sister (Vanessa Zima) is one of the script's more implausible elements; another is the quiet man's sudden willingness to open up as soon as a potential girlfriend and stepmom, by the name of Connie Hope (Patricia Richardson), ventures to ask about his late wife.

Ultimately, writer/director Victor Nuñez (Ruby in Paradise) proves more adept at managing the film's visual details; the Florida Panhandle locations allow an aptly swampy look that almost compensates for the cloying piano music accompanying every "emotion." Otherwise, Ulee's Gold mines familiar territory, being yet another Southern tale of an emotionally challenged man-child whose work ethic and old-fashioned values win out over all else. The Gumpian box of chocolates here becomes Ulee's jar of honey, storing the film's message that a man's sweetness makes the world go 'round.

Ulee's Gold (R; 115 min.), directed and written by Victor Nuñez, photographed by Virgil Mirano and starring Peter Fonda and Patricia Richardson.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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