The Buzz On 'Ulee'? A Honey.

ULEE JACKSON (PETER Fonda), the hero of Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold, is a man who, by his own description, "fell off the planet" when his wife died. Over the course of this richly felt movie he will climb back aboard. A Florida beekeeper, this Vietnam yet-- a wily, naturally reserved man to begin with- has withdrawn into his work, barely connecting with the two granddaughters in his care. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for robbery; his daughter-in-law, a junkie, has run off, and he shuns the advances of his neighbors, clinging to an old-fashioned creed of self-reliance.

But a call from his incarcerated son draws him back into the world: he's sent on a mission to rescue Jimmy's strung-out wife, Helen (Christine Dunford), and bring her home. But with her comes trouble: thugs who are looking for the stolen money her husband stashed away on Ulee's land.

These are surprisingly melodramatic ingredients from the maker of "Ruby in Paradise," but Nunez's use of melodrama is as refreshingly anti-Hollywood as ever: the action is entirely in the service of character. What's startling about this quiet, un-hyped-up film is how moving it is. Fonda's performance --the best he's ever given--is haunted both by Ulee's past and by Fonda's father, whose physical mannerisms are eerily present in his son. Patricia Richardson is equally fine as a twice-divorced nurse who helps Ulee cope with Helen's detox--and helps him emerge from his self-protec-tive shell. "Ulee's Gold" possesses an attribute that's increasingly rare in American