“Nobody’s Fool” is a gentle, flavorsome story of a loose-knit, dysfunctional family whose members essentially include every glimpsed citizen of a small New York town. Fronted by a splendid performance from Paul Newman as a spirited man who has made nothing of his life, Robert Benton’s character-driven film is sprinkled with small pleasures; the dramatic developments here don’t take place in the noisy, calamitous manner that is customary these days. Inherent modesty of the undertaking, rare in a studio project, will make it difficult for Paramount to carve out a prominent profile for it in the Christmas rush. But with some luck the pic could coast quietly through the holidays, and, if encouraged, possibly build an audience in midwinter.
Newman’s Sully is the odd man out in North Bath, N.Y., a fitfully employed, 60-year-old construction worker and handyman who is reduced to boarding with his elderly eighth grade teacher, Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy); pursuing futile legal action assisted by a lawyer, Wirf (Gene Saks), who never wins a case; and having the village idiot, Rub Squeers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), as his best friend.
His closest soul mate is probably the sexy Toby (Melanie Griffith), and Sully still fancies himself enough of a ladies’ man to half-seriously imagine that he might have a chance of a tumble with her. But she’s married, however unhappily, to Carl (Bruce Willis), the stingy manager of Tip Top Construction, and this, along with the rather gaping age difference, might just be too much to overcome.
Narrative bridges the holidays beginning at Thanksgiving, which accentuates the aloneness, not only of Sully, but of many other individuals in the run-down town. Miss Beryl is at increasing odds with her son Clive Jr. (Josef Sommer), a businessman who hopes to build a huge, economy-boosting theme park nearby. Toby, Wirf and Rub are mostly left to their own devices, and even Sully’s college professor son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), who arrives in town married with two boys, not having seen his father in years, is soon cast out of his family nest.
Unemployable in any seriousway due to his bum knee and irascible manner, Sully begs Carl for work and, when he is refused, takes to stealing the younger man’s snow blower, which he must do repeatedly since Carl always takes it back.
Whether dealing with his would-be boss or blood kin, Sully wears his reputation for irresponsibility lightly. But no one has suffered nearly as much due to his immature behavior as he has: He’s come this far in life without taking care of business, notably his own, and it soon ap-pears that he may have but one more chance.
After the apparent randomness of the opening reels, which portray Sully’s cheerfully adversarial relationship with much of life, Benton has adapted Richard Russo’s novel in such a way that the film accrues strength through the sprouting of carefully planted seeds. Sully’s long-running feud with the local cop finally lands him in jail, and a visit to what had been his childhood home, now boarded up, ends up providing some hope for the future.
As things turn out, events and people’s fates are determined by small but decisive acts of generosity that make all the difference. Sully’s entirely unwarranted optimism is rewarded in unexpected ways, which does not excuse the laxness with which he’s lived his life until now but does support the theory that change for the better is always possible, that hope should never be extinguished. This theme is not laid on with a trowel in typical Hollywood inspirational fashion, but understatedly. Film’s impact is thus light, but appealing all the same.
Playing 10 years younger than his real age with no problem, Newman delivers one of his most engaging performances in years. Portraying the sort of old coot to be found in every small town, the actor brings great zest to his unusual role of a man who refuses to consider himself a loser despite six decades of evidence to the contrary, someone who still takes adolescent delight in behaving like a prankish bad boy, a misfit whose spirit has somehow not been chopped down by life’s disappointments. It’s a strong role that Newman makes even richer.
Just about everyone else on hand shines as well. In her second-to-last role, Tandy, as Sully’s thoughtful landlady, has some ominous initial lines, saying, “I’ve got a feeling God’s creeping in on me. I’ve got a feeling this is the year he’ll lower the boom.” She’s very good, as always, and the film is dedicated to her.
Willis, who curiously is not billed in the front credits nor in the print art , is the highlight of the strong supporting cast, delivering a tangy turn as the exasperated company boss who’s awfully good at saying no. Griffith is appealingly relaxed and easygoing under Benton’s direction as Willis’ wife; Saks has some amusing moments as the sad-sack attorney; and Elizabeth Wilson turns up uncredited as Newman’s ex-wife.
The gray atmosphere of an Eastern town in dead of winter is unerringly captured with the help of locations in various towns, David Gropman’s deliberately tattered production design and John Bailey’s elegant, unfussy lensing. Howard Shore’s score is also a solid plus.