Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Ulysses' Odyssey

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

July 21, 1997:  Ulee's Gold, the new drama by Victor Nunez, concerns a withdrawn, taciturn beekeeper named Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson, the kind of man who immerses himself in backbreaking labor to produce barrels of intoxicating tupelo honey--little of which we ever see him taste. A Vietnam vet who made it home by relying on his wits, Ulee has secluded himself and his granddaughters in a Florida glade after his wife's death. He doesn't seek the company of others, and he shuns the kindly sheriff who was once his friend.

In short, Ulee is a lot like Victor Nunez's movies: restrained, austere, distrustful of big displays of emotion. And in both cases you're surprised by how much you warm up to them. Since making his debut in 1979 with Gal Young 'Un, an engrossing adaptation of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story, Nunez has made only a handful of films in his home state of Florida. But they share virtues of uncommon realism, perceptive detail, and a keen interest in the way people who are often overlooked by the movies live their lives--specifically when they're at work. Ulee's Gold, in addition to being a suspenseful mood piece, an involving family drama, and the barest hint of a love story, is also a damn fine movie about beekeeping.

In Nunez's movies, the catalyst is always the disruption of a routine; the resolution is often the formation of a new routine. And so Ulee's spartan life is upended by a call from his convict son, Jimmy, played by Tom Wood. Jimmy's junkie wife, Helen (Christine Dunford), is strung out with two of his former pals; Ulee's prodigal son wants him to rescue the daughter-in-law he's never loved. Ulee agrees, only to discover Jimmy's cohorts have an agenda of their own: the loot that Jimmy secretly stashed after a robbery.

Don't expect blazing guns and car chases from this synopsis. Nunez has drawn criticism for his slow-paced, didactic scripts and "uncinematic" moviemaking--the same charges reviewers always level at John Sayles. Nunez, who edits and photographs his films in addition to writing and directing them, lacks even Sayles' leavening streak of wise-guy humor and his hired-gun's commercial instincts. And yet he knows where the drama is hidden in so-called ordinary lives--in the accumulation of actions and reactions, the feelings people can't or won't express. As Ulee, a classic Western hero who wants no more part of killing, tries to figure a way out of his dilemma that doesn't require a gun, Nunez builds suspense and interest through his tight-lipped encounters with the few people in his life--especially the kind, cool-headed nurse (Patricia Richardson) who rents the cottage across the street.

A keeper Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold. Photo by John Bramley.

The presence of Richardson, an appealing actress who genuinely looks and acts like a suburban neighbor--she has quietly stolen scenes for years as Tim Allen's wife on Home Improvement--typifies Nunez's knack for astute casting. So does Peter Fonda as Ulee, who brings the movie to life much the way Ashley Judd jolted a pulse into Nunez's Ruby in Paradise. In recent years Fonda has resurfaced in memorable wacko roles as a first-rate character actor, but here he's convincing as the sort of stern, close-mouthed, yet caring man of integrity his father played in late vehicles like On Golden Pond. There are only a couple of times when he takes a long pause because it seems like something an actor should do; for the most part, his performance is knowing and closely observed. When he drinks a glass of water, for example, he takes it in like parched soil soaking up rain.

There's a tendency, and a temptation, to overpraise Nunez's work because it is so cautious and humble. Ulee's Gold is pitched at the level of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, and it's affecting for precisely the same unfashionable reasons: solid acting, attentive direction, a good story, and characters whose emotions seem plausible and real. Nevertheless, by the time Ulee is staring at a loaded gun and silently calculating how much of a chance he has to pull the trigger, the virtues of Victor Nunez's careful storytelling no longer seem so modest. We underestimate the filmmaker and his deceptively quiet hero. By the end of Ulee's Gold, they've both done us the great favor of taking us by surprise.--Jim Ridley

Right vehicle, wrong exit

Road movies of any stripe are typically a treat, but when filmmakers combine the endless possibilities of the open road with the subtle annoyances of travelers, comedy is practically guaranteed--be it as silly as Kingpin, as mainstream as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or as sublime as Flirting With Disaster. The latest of these, Steve Oedekerk's Nothing to Lose, attempts to combine a caper movie with a road comedy in the mold of Midnight Run. Tim Robbins stars as an advertising design consultant who is shaken from his secure upper-middle-class Los Angeleno lifestyle when he happens upon his wife in the throes of passion with his boss. Driving along in a funk, he wanders into a run-down neighborhood and is startled by carjacker Martin Lawrence. Unwilling to be taken, Robbins locks the doors, steps on the accelerator, and drives Lawrence to Arizona.

Robbins is a fine comic actor, with a gift for turning tight-ass anger into dry comic timing. Lawrence is looser, with a zany energy that often jolts viewers into laughter even when his material isn't that funny. Together, they're a hoot, especially when Robbins' desperation leads him to middle-manage Lawrence's criminal activity. Soon they've earned the attention of the cops, and of another pair of Route 66 bandits (Giancarlo Esposito and John C. McGinley), who are upset that neophytes are working their desert.

The problem with Nothing to Lose is that, as good as the chemistry between Robbins and Lawrence is, and as laugh-out-loud funny as their banter often is, it takes more than jokes and personalities to make a movie. What's required is some kind of momentum, something to drive the picture--a plot that makes sense, or is at least credible enough to sustain high jinks. This is a lesson that Oedekerk, who wrote and directed Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, has yet to learn. Nothing to Lose has funny scenes that too often descend to drawn guns and shouted profanity; the director's imagination seems to disappear on the heels of his inspiration.

A major miscalculation occurs when Oedekerk steers his costars off the highway. Halfway through the film, Robbins and Lawrence return to L.A., and Nothing to Lose abandons its anarchic, anything-for-a-laugh spirit. We visit Lawrence's home and learn that he's actually a misunderstood family man and an unemployed electronics whiz. (Why a brilliant engineer would need an ad exec to plan his robberies is a question I'd better not ask). Meanwhile, Robbins learns some things about himself that make him second-guess the crime spree. And so the movie runs out of gas; one last big job for the twosome is good for a couple of grins, but Oedekerk, in turning back on his head-out-for-the-horizon premise, has eliminated every element of surprise. He's not going to take us from Point A to Point B; he's heading back to point A, where everything will be restored to bland, uninteresting normalcy.

For a road comedy to work, we in the audience have to feel that anything might happen. Once Nothing to Lose does its narrative U-turn, we see the rest of the film laid out for us like a map. Despite the title, Nothing to Lose plays it stultifyingly safe.--Noel Murray

Smooth sailing

They don't make formula pictures like they used to. Back in the days of the studio system, Hollywood cranked out scores of "programmers" per year, movies with no prestige and no gimmicks, just to have product for their screens. But because the studios owned the actors as well as the theater chains, these dime-a-dozen pictures had star power. Today, watching any matinee on a classic movie channel is an intoxicating experience. To see Ginger Rogers or Dana Andrews in some forgettable role, acting out a hackneyed plot, is to see what made movies great: the verve and craft of professionals who never, ever phoned it in.

Out to Sea is a throwback to the old days. Its plot wouldn't fill one-third of a typical Love Boat hour: Luckless gambler (Walter Matthau) persuades mourning widower (Jack Lemmon) to go on a cruise to meet wealthy women. The catch, and the comedy hook: They have to act as dance hosts. (Do cruise ships still have such anachronisms?) While Matthau flashes imaginary wealth to impress Texas heiress Dyan Cannon, Lemmon pretends he's a doctor for widow Gloria De Haven. Of course, their lies catch up with them in the second act and all is forgiven in the third. Nobody's going to sit through this movie for the suspense.

Old Pros Rue McLanahan and Walter Matthau in Out to Sea Photo by Peter Sorel

The thin plot only reveals what a stellar cast of entertainers has been assembled here. Matthau's comic timing is inimitable: Deliberate, straight-faced, emphatic, his work here reminded me of the hilarious '70s novelty Hopscotch. Lemmon's stuttering shtick has been wearing thin for years, but his character has some touching moments, and his relationship with De Haven is sweet. Brent Spiner wreaks havoc in the inspired role of a megalomaniac cruise director who fancies himself a Vegas lounge act. Around the fringes, old hoofers Donald O'Connor, Hal Linden, and Elaine Stritch are a delight to watch, and they look like they're having a terrific time. But couldn't the budget have stretched to include just one real production number?

Formula pictures are different today because they have to pretend they aren't formula pictures. Soaring production costs and huge star salaries mean that the ordinary story can't be expected simply to fill a program--it has to be sold as the movie event of the year. With the financial monkey on the back of every film, it's amazing there's any joy on the screen. A movie like Out to Sea may be trite and full of filler, but it conveys that bygone spirit of entertainment. The stars seem to have decided to make a movie the same way Garland and Rooney used to decide to put on a show. If the tickets cost more than in the studio system's glory days, consider it a surcharge for time travel, and well worth the price.--Donna Bowman

Love! Valour! Compression!

There are two ways to film a play. Either stay faithful to the text and setting of the original, and have the work dismissed as "too stagy"; or "open up" the production--shorten scenes, add scenes, mix up locations--and run the risk of losing what made the original worthwhile. Frankly, I prefer stagy. I don't get to see many plays, and I'm not bothered by minimal settings. Two of the better-filmed plays I've seen in recent years--Noises Off and Oleanna--were both slavish reproductions of their theatrical versions; both, unfairly, were roundly panned. An even more illustrative example is Glengarry Glen Ross, in which director James Foley intercuts the three scenes of David Mamet's first act in a disjointed, stop-and-start manner, then films the second act straight to superior effect.

Now comes Love! Valour! Compassion!, the movie version of Terrence McNally's Tony-winning play, which has been opened up so wide that large pieces of it seem to have fallen out. The film was directed by Joe Mantello, who directed the stage version, and the screenplay is by McNally himself. The entire original cast has been assembled, with the exception of Nathan Lane, who has been replaced by Jason Alexander. The structure of the story has also been retained--eight gay men gather at a country house on three successive summer holiday weekends to talk about culture, politics, and love.

What's missing are the words. Love! Valour! Compassion! is a very chatty play, filled with jokes, arguments, and insights. The film version has been practically vetted; the characters are all in place, but their dialogue trails off. What's left is the outline of a story, filled in with long, silent passages in which the actors roam about the grounds of their appointed country house, as though they were delighted to be free of the stage at last.

The movie suffers from its sketchiness. The play had its heavy-handed moments of speechifying, but its dry humor soaked up the soggy spots. Without the naturalistic ebb and flow of conversation, McNally's observations about AIDS and promiscuity seem overemphasized, as if speeches alone were the story's raison d'tre. The characters are weaker for the abridgment as well. Reckless young dancer Ramon (Randy Becker) comes off as more horny and shallow than free-spirited and passionate; and the complicated relationship of committed couple Perry (Stephen Spinella) and Arthur (John Benjamin Hickey) has been reduced to hugs and spats.

Bright moments do remain. Alexander gives a charming performance as Buzz, even if he lacks the fringe of sorrow that Nathan Lane would've brought to the role; and John Glover is commanding as both the petty lout John and his sweet, frumpy brother James. Also, the play's genial camaraderie remains unsuppressed, as does its compelling portrait of a lively, close-knit gay community--a portrayal that allows a gay audience to feel connected and makes straight audiences wish they had such a base of support.

But there's a telling line in the play that's missing from the movie. Buzz, the aficionado of Broadway musicals, comments at dinner that "movies are for people who have to eat popcorn while they're being entertained." Does this reflect McNally's attitude toward cinema? Does this explain why the film of his play seems so flat and uncomplicated? Certainly the source material has the seeds of an interesting movie. Robert Altman, who has made several dynamic and faithful filmed plays, could've done wonders with the characters' constant asides to the audience, a conceit that's mostly absent from the film until its effective, climactic dance scene.

Instead, we seem to have gotten the version of Love! Valour! Compassion! that McNally and Mantello think middle America deserves--insultingly curtailed, with lots of pretty scenery where blood used to flow. It has become a clichd joke that great works are butchered when they get to Hollywood, but who'd have thought the day would come when the authors would be wielding the knife?--Noel Murray

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