Ulee's Gold (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There's an old saw that postulates that a working timepiece is never exactly right, but a stopped clock is precisely right twice per day.

Peter Fonda is the stopped clock. For about a zillion years now, he's been delivering the thoughtful, laconic, unchallenging, laid-back guy in pretty much every film. He's also been completely stiff in all his body movements. This time he got the script that called for a thoughtful, laconic, unchallenging, laid-back guy with a very bad backache that kept him from moving around very much. Voila. Oscar nomination.

I guess.

The academy obviously felt that Fonda nailed the role and that he's paid a lot of dues over the years, and he comes from a family of acting royalty, so .... there it was.

Ulee is a beekeeper, an old-fashioned guy who runs a one-man operation, as he has since he took over from his dad, who in turn took over from his own dad. He produces a type of honey known as Tupelo Gold, which can only be produced by the bees and the climate of the river valleys in Georgia, Mississippi and Northern Florida.

Sorry for those of you who thought that Tupelo Gold would be either a high grade of marijuana or a precious metal much coveted by Gert Frobe.

He has one of those jobs that requires him to bust his ass with 18 hour days two months a year, kind of like a tax accountant. This year, events in his personal life conspire to take him away from the bees when he needs to be working. 

He's raising two young girls whose mother is a junkie and whose dad in is the slammer, and they are a handful to begin with. Then an imprisoned son needs Ulee to resolve a plot twist involving two former criminal associates, his junkie wife, and some unrecovered robbery loot. And then, there is the junkie daughter-in-law herself, and the matter of Ulee's very bad back. 


Ulee is one of those people who can't trust other people or ask them for help, so he steadfastly refuses all assistance from his friends and family and tries to do everything himself unless help is forced upon him. Having been shattered by the lives of his son and daughter-in-law, he shuts himself off from emotional contact with anyone, becoming ever more world-weary and withdrawn.

The criminal sub-plot makes the movie go forward, but it's really about Ulee learning to trust people and relate to them again.

It's a gentle movie which moves deliberately. The members of the cast, even the two evildoers, speak in a laid-back manner without raising their voices, and refer to each other as Mr This, or Captain That, or My Father. The low energy is intentional, and is reinforced by tension-free action scenes and a gentle score that might have been background music on Walton Mountain during their warm moments.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • There are two sides, one widescreen, and one full screen. 

  • No meaningful features.

This film is a virtual primer on beekeeping. This movie is to beekeeping as Moby Dick is to whaling.

This is really not my kind of movie. I was determined to watch it, but I had to stop it twice to take a break, then muster up the will to get back to it. It really is that slow and that low on energy. On the other hand, many critics felt it was superior, and confirmed the Oscar committee's nomination of Fonda, and there is much to be said for their reflections. It is a graceful, dignified, realistic film without any contrivances or artifice, and I'm pleased that Peter got a role tailored to his skills.

Sidebar: Although the outdoor scenes in the film have a beautiful photographic feel, with plenty of vernal greens and yellows, the sound mixing is very poor. There were cases when the words were drowned out by background sounds or music, and a couple of cases when I just couldn't make out what they were saying, even with the sound all the way up. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, Maltin 3/4, Apollo 74.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 100% positive overall, 100% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, but Apollo users a very unimpressive 58/100. 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed only $9 million, but was made for a paltry (by studio standards) three million, so turned a healthy profit. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. A specialty niche film much beloved by its devotees. I can't imagine that many of you will get involved in this actionless, almost non-verbal film, unless you're really into bees, but if you have a taste for the gentler fare, and don't mind a slow pace, be advised that many people love it, and you may as well.

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