This movie also almost gave the late Peter Fonda his Oscar.
The only two Oscars Peter Fonda has been nominated for in his life were for his performances in “Easy Rider,” one of the great American classics, and “Ulee’s Gold,” an honest and good-hearted artisan. The latter, in this case, is all about changing your tune, and keeping everything balanced.
Written and directed by Victor Nunez (“Ruby in Paradise”) and produced by Jonathan Demme, the movie wins you over with its first-rate performances, well-written characters, and a sweetness inside it all.
In “Ulee’s Gold,” he portrays Ulee Jackson, a Florida beekeeper, whose family has fallen apart. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in the slammer, his daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) is a junkie, who has abandoned her two daughters (Jessica Biel and Vanessa Zima), leaving him to raise them, while mourning the loss of his wife Penelope.
While in the midst of a busy bee season, Ulee is asked by Jimmy to bring his wife home. While doing that, his former partners-in-crime, Eddie Flowers (Steven Flynn) and Ferris Dooley (Dewey Weber), force Ulee to get their money which they believe Jimmy has hidden, following a robbery.
With the help of his kind doctor neighbor (Patricia Richardson of “Home Improvement” fame), he has Helen tied to a bed, until she recovers. And meanwhile, Ulee struggles to keep everything else in order, what with the bees and the criminals and all. Even his rebellious granddaughter Casey (Biel) tries to get involved in her family’s drama.
Never having heard of “Ulee’s Gold” before, I was reminded of my grandfather’s lesson about seeing the movie, instead of the trailer. Doing that, you never know what to expect, and I didn’t know what to expect. That trick works, trust me.
With Nunez’s writing, the movie allows the actors to improvise with their character’s emotions and feelings. Even Fonda admitted Ulee was the best character he has read in a script. He’s flat-out perfect, because of the ways he balances his strengths and weaknesses, and how we feel for his character. Biel, at that time, is a rebellious teen who isn’t generic, but smart and daring. Wood is fine as the incarcerated son, Flynn and Dolley both make likable criminals, Dunford is gripping as the neglectful daughter-in-law, and Richardson adds a nice touch as the neighbor.
I did get a little lost in the first act, when the criminals explain their deception to Ulee; but I was able to pick up the pieces, and see the outcome of almost every situation that pops up.
Back to Fonda, he portrays a reserved man who allows his son to keep the blame for his bad choices, while helping him out at the same time. He warned him not to take the wrong path, and he still mourns the loss of his wife. This was a memorable performance from him, and in honor of his humanity, we’ll never forget him. And that also goes for “Easy Rider.”