The next time your girlfriend suggests that you take her to see "Little Women" tell her to bring her roomate instead. As soon as she's gone, sneak off to see "Nobody's Fool."
Directed by Robert Benton of "Kramer vs. Kramer" fame, and starring Paul Newman, "Nobody's Fool" is a touching story of an old man's chance at redemption. Of course this film is accessible to women, too, but the moments between Paul Newman's character and his son will be especially appreciated by any man who has had a difficult relationship with his father.
Somewhere between Twin Peaks and Rome lies the town of North Bath. Located in upstate New York, it is the kind of small town where a dispute, if it escalates, can lead to the stealing of a snowblower by a disgruntled employee. When the owner of the brand new Toro tracks it down, he'll steal it back. This ritual can go on for days.
The disgruntled employee is Donald Sullivan, known to the rest of the town as Sully. His boss is Carl Roebuck, played by Bruce Willis. Since mangling his knee on the job, Sully insists that he is owed compensation. His one legged lawyer, Wirf, portrayed marvelously by Gene Saks, can't get the local judge to agree. Unfortunately for Sully, his lawyer isn't on a hot streak. He can't even predict the outcome of a case on "The People's Court." Sully has a better chance of collecting money on the Trifecta ticket--a longshot in horseracing--that he plays every day.
It is Thanksgiving, and Sully's son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), returns to town with his wife, Charlotte, and their two sons, Will and Wacker. Peter was recently fired from his job, and his marriage is shaky. When Charlotte leaves town with Wacker, Sully has another shot at being a father. It is a job he walked out on when Peter was only a year old. Later, his son asks, "How come your're not a father to me, but your're a grandfather to my son?" Sully shrugs. "You've got to start somewhere," he replies.
This is also a film about a small town. It resembles an ecosystem where the threads of life are tightly interwoven. All of the citizens of North Bath are completely dependent on one other. After sueing him for lost wages and then stealing his snowblower, Sully isn't surprised to find Carl curled up on his couch later that night. As vicious as their relationship may be, Sully is still a source of comfort. And when Sully wins his lawyer's wooden leg in the weekly poker game, Wirf knows it is only a matter of time before he gets it back.
The scenes depicting the quirky nature of North Bath are thoroughly enjoyable. One leaves the theater with the distinct sense of having visited extended family. Only two questions remain. Will Sully ever make more of the life god gave him? And will that Trifecta ever come home?
"Nobody's Fool" is successful because it is potent without relying on typical film conventions. There are no guns. Well, okay, two to be exact. There are no naked women. Okay, maybe for a split second. But, the point is that no one's life is on the line. Compared to many films where the world is sure to end, the stakes in "Nobody's Fool" are small. The worst that could happen is for Sully to go on relinquishing responsibility. What is the best that could happen? Probably that Sully starts to value the things he's taken for granted all his life.
Certainly this film moves methodically. Nothing in North Bath seems to travel faster than Sully's red pickup. And there is little tension. Never are we on the edge of our seats. Despite this, the film works marvelously by giving us something we rarely get in an American film; real people.
Paul Newman is as enjoyable to watch on screen as anyone in recent memory, maybe more so. He's the key to making this film memorable, I know critics are tripping over themselves in praising his performance, so allow me to stumble, too. Mr. Newman is truly captivating. The substance and honesty he brings to the role are reminiscent of his performances in "The Hustler" and "Cool Hand Luke". If ever he has deserved an Academy Award, it is for "Nobody's Fool."
Mr. Newman is not the only one who is dazzling Jessica Tandy, as his landlord, and Melanie Griffith, as Sully's true love that could never be, give startlingly on target performances. Even Bruce Willis is enjoyable.
Other than the performances, it is difficult to find inspired work in this film. From the simple typeface of the opening credits to the matter of fact lighting, everything worked towards accentuating the naturalism of this town. This is what Robert Benton does best. He forces us to recognize the beauty in the people and places that surround us.