January 13, 1995 | What is Nobody’s Fool all about? Nothing in particular and everything that matters. How is Paul Newman in the lead role? He doesn’t appear to do anything extraordinary, but he gives the very best performance of his career.
So much for the easy questions. Now come the difficult ones: How did they do it? And how did they make it look so easy, so unaffectedly off-handed, so matter-of-factly wonderful? How did Newman, writer-director Robert Benton, co-stars Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and all the other talented people involved with this project make such an immensely enjoyable and uniquely satisfying film without ever seeming to work up a sweat or force an emotion? It boggles the mind. More important, it also touches the heart.
And, not incidentally, it restores your faith in the ability of Hollywood-financed entertainment to deal realistically, affectionately and altogether uncondescendingly with average working-class folks in the middle of living their everyday lives.
The setting is a small town in upstate New York during a few weeks between Thanksgiving and early January. Everything about the location and the season -- the cramped but cozy kitchens, the weather-beaten clapboard houses, the dreary snowdrifts, the neighborhood bar that looks all the more forlorn when decked out with Christmas decorations -- is dead-solid perfect. Which, of course, greatly enhances the believability of everything else in the movie.
There is a plot, but only as much as there absolutely has to be. Based on the well-received novel by Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool is the story of Sully (Newman), an aimless and amiably impoverished construction worker with a banged-up knee, a who-cares attitude and a scolding landlady named Miss Beryl (Tandy). When he isn’t trying to wheedle work from Carl (Willis), a slow-paying contractor, Sully is busy suing the contractor for an on-the-job injury, or flirting with Toby (Griffith), Carl’s frankly discontented wife. Fortunately, Carl doesn’t take anything Sully does very seriously. Come to think of it, neither does Sully.
And then -- slowly, unexpectedly -- things start to change.
At age 60, Sully finds himself, much to his amazement, on the verge of finally becoming a responsible adult. Mind you, it’s not something he planned, or is particularly looking forward to. Like just about everything else in his life, it just happens, and Sully has to deal with it.
In this case, it begins to happen at Thanksgiving when Sully visits the ex-wife (Elizabeth Wilson) he abandoned years earlier. She doesn’t hold much of a grudge -- after all, his leaving left her free to marry a much more stable fellow. But she worries that their grown son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), a recently fired university professor, is about to repeat his father’s worst mistakes. His marriage is crumbling, his employment hopes are dim, and he simply wants to lie low and hide out for a while.
Sully gives Peter a job as his assistant, even though he doesn’t have all that much work to do, and even though he already has the slow-witted Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince) as a part-time helper. Maybe he wants a second chance as a father. Maybe he wants a first chance as a grandfather to Peter’s young son. Or maybe, most probably, Sully is just making it all up as he goes along. Whatever his reason, he becomes a better person, almost in spite of himself.
And that’s it. No melodramatic reversals of fortune, no shocking revelations, no grand romantic gestures. There isn’t even a car chase, not unless you count Sully’s slow-speed pursuit of a disgruntled Rub after the two men have a bitter argument. And even here, the accent is on emotion, not action. Rub walks off in the first place because he bitterly resents having to share Sully with Peter. Later on, Sully tries to make amends by telling Rub: “You’re my best friend.” The look on Newman’s face as Sully registers the full meaning of his own words is, to put it succinctly, priceless.
Even better is another quiet moment, when Sully looks around the house where he spent his childhood. All we need to see is his expression as he walks through the long-deserted rooms. Then we know all we need to know about the father who terrorized him and the mother he couldn’t help.
Earlier, Miss Beryl remarks on her failing health: “I think God’s closing in on me. I think this is the year he lowers the boom.” It’s more than a little unsettling to hear this if you know that Tandy knew she was dying while making Nobody’s Fool. But there is nothing frail or maudlin about her splendid farewell performance. It’s very clear that Miss Beryl deeply appreciates Sully’s refusal to treat her like a fading flower, and his willingness to give her the same sass he gives everyone else.
As Carl, a free-wheeling wastrel who continues to drink and smoke heavily long after bypass surgery, Willis once again displays his underrated versatility as a fine character actor. He is very good, and so is Griffith as his frustrated wife. There are many other fine performances in Nobody’s Fool -- most notably, Gene Saks as Sully’s second-rate lawyer and Philip Bosco as a no-nonsense judge -- and all of them are testaments to Benton’s ability to weave many diverse talents into a seamless ensemble. Benton has made some excellent movies before this one, including Kramer Vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart. But, like Newman, he has waited until now to reach the absolute peak of a distinguished career.