Ulee's Gold / The Van

Ulee's Gold

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

The Van

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

PETER FONDA HAS garnered quite a buzz 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 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 the indie Ulee's Gold set itself the task of showing what 30 years of the real world might do to a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead. If Captain America's superheroism stemmed from waving his freak-flag high before going out in a blaze of glory, Ulee is 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 here 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 this sort of Method. (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 makes his living similarly by rounding up bees--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 reciprocity 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 making like a king bee. In fact, how swiftly the kid comes around to making sugar cookies with her younger sister (Vanessa Biel) 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, the symbolically named Connie Hope (Patricia Richardson), ventures to ask about his late wife (symbolically named Penelope, in deference to Ulee's Ulysses).

Ultimately, the veteran writer/director Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise) proves more adept at managing the film's visual details, as the Florida Panhandle locations allow an appropriately swampy texture that almost compensates for the cloying piano music he uses to accompany every "emotion." Otherwise, Ulee's Gold mines familiar territory at a snail's pace, being 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 father's sweetness makes the world go round.

Likewise concerned with male responsibility and small business, The Van gets better mileage out of its metaphors. It marks director Stephen Frears's return to adapting a novel by Irish author Roddy Doyle (The Snapper), and to working with more freedom after the Hollywood trappings of his Mary Reilly. A comedy set amid the rampant unemployment of North Dublin circa 1989, this third chapter of Doyle's fictional "Barrytown trilogy" follows Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) and Larry (Colm Meaney), two behaviorally opposed guys who bicker as only old friends can, and who drown their financial woes in multiple pints.

A hardworking but naive father of three, Bimbo loses his longtime job at a bakery, and decides to put his severance pay toward a beat-up van from which to operate a fast-food "chipper" stand with the short-tempered Larry. Their friend who locates the van (Brendan O'Carroll) says that "all she needs is a wash and a shave under the armpits," but even after being cleaned up it still smells like a lemon. It doesn't help that Bimbo and Larry's "restaurant" is grossly unsanitary; at one point, they accidentally sell a deep-fried diaper to an irate customer. Luckily, the Irish soccer team is heading toward the World Cup finals, which makes the public hungry for fish and chips.

Working with Doyle's wonderfully salty dialogue, Frears does a great job of capturing the characteristically Irish blend of comedy and melodrama, resulting in an upbeat movie about being on the dole. In this, The Van seems the temperamental opposite of Ulee's Gold, its characters' nervous energy fueling a humorously pessimistic view of indie business. Like Ulee, Larry and Bimbo manage to win back the respect of their families through hard labor. But their new insight into the horrors of self-employment also leads them to abandon the van in Dublin Bay for some other poor sucker to polish up and deal with. The point is that, independent or otherwise, work is work.

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