The Film: Nobody’s Fool (1994)
The Principals: Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Dylan Walsh, Gene Saks, Josef Sommer, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Philip Bosco, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Margo Martindale. Based on the novel by Richard Russo. Written and directed by Robert Benton.
The Premise: Jaded, sardonic retiree Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Newman) finds himself at a crossroads during the wintry holiday season in the small town of North Bath, New York. At once, Sully reconnects with his estranged son (Walsh), and gets saddled with working for his womanizing construction tycoon boss Carl (Willis) while he fights a workers’-compensation lawsuit against him. Meanwhile, Sully grows romantically close to Carl’s wife, Toby (Griffith) and fights to convince his elderly landlady (Tandy) to fend off her banker son (Sommer) from evicting Sully and expounding on a real-estate proposition in town.
Is It Good? Nobody’s Fool is a great, great little movie—one of the most unsung sleepers of the past generation, a uniquely episodic character study that highlights a fascinating array of small-town quirks under the guide of one of Hollywood’s most underrated New Hollywood heroes. Robert Benton has always been a writer and director who has taken pride in characterization, co-writing Bonnie and Clyde and Superman not to mention an Oscar windfall for Kramer vs. Kramer and the vastly underrated 70’s gem The Late Show. Couple him with Paul Newman—whose project selections had become careful and limited in his later years—and the modernity of the film is oddly complemented by a sense of storytelling and characterization from another era.
Case in point: Paul Newman. 33 years out from his career-defining work in The Hustler, it is still clear that, in 1994, Newman maintained a contemporary aura to his screen presence, as apparent here. Donald “Sully” Sullivan is a young-at-heart, aged-to-perfection rebel who lives by the idea that age is but a number. When we’re introduced to Sully, we have come into his life at a time where much of his life experiences have weathered over—a failed marriage, a wayward working career—and would hint at someone harboring dark secrets. Newman demystifies the haunts of Sully by his magic, undying charisma, trying to settle a shaky workers’-compensation lawsuit against his employer, construction heir Carl (a brilliantly understated Bruce Willis) with the assistance of his neurotic, one-legged lawyer (Odd Couple director Gene Saks).
One of the most incredible achievements of Nobody’s Fool is the way it manages its characters. Living in a small town, the Cheers mantra of “everybody knows your name” is in effect among the townsfolk, and any character traits are presented to us in such a way that they do not obstruct the relaxed grasp Benton has on Richard Russo’s novel. A one-legged lawyer would be hammered over our heads in something more like today’s Hollywood, but not here: it’s simply an added laugh to a character who tries to telepathically communicate with his client during a poker game so that Carl will not clean out his loot.
Restated, this is not traditional storytelling—not in the nonlinear, postmodern Tarantino ideology but in the way that its protagonist never has a clear-cut goal that has to be resolved over three acts of a screenplay. Sully’s arc is about experience: at the same time he’s trying to coax Carl (who might as well be Joe Hallenbeck based on the way he acts) into giving him his insurance money, he courts Carl’s wife Toby (Melanie Griffith, looking sexy for the last time and so charming here) and repeatedly steals his high-end snowblower in order to tend to chores for his caring but ornery landlady Beryl (Tandy).
In her final performance, Jessica Tandy plays the part as frustrated with Sully’s Zen way of bumbling around, but ultimately, she proves herself as more of a foil for Sully’s morality rather than an enemy. Beryl’s complexities come through in the presence of her cutthroat banker son (Josef Sommer), who wants to raze the community for new condominiums and evict Sully. She indeed cares about Sully in the same way he has hopes for his trifecta bets on horse races will clear through for him. “The odds have got to kick in sooner or later,” Sully tells Beryl.
“Fine. That’s exactly the way I feel about you,” Beryl responds.
The significance of the odds of Sully’s race track bets weigh strongly on the events of the film. Sully’s old-world dealings hinge on pure luck: in reconnecting with his son Peter (Walsh), he finds himself at odds for his closer connection to the grandson he never met than his own son. “You have to start somewhere,” Sully wryly remarks. Sully also sees his chance reconnection with Peter as a way to expand upon his intellectual ways and expose him to his blue-collar roots of tossing cinder blocks into a pile.
As they always say, everything happens for a reason in life. One door closes, another opens—it’s these clichéd meditations that sell Nobody’s Fool so well as a character study: whether betting on horse races, trying to reconcile with loved ones, dick over an unlikable boss, or punching a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in the face for firing an unnecessary warning shot at Sully and Peter while driving on a sidewalk, perseverance, affection and dedication are the keys to satisfaction in life.
Is It Worth a Look? Deserves more credit and love than it gets. Essential Paul Newman. Essential (and unexpected) boobs. No excuses if you’re not already madly smitten with it already.
Random Anecdotes: Due to a presumption that he was an action star and the fact that a string of non-action flops had threatened to derail his career, Bruce Willis’s name is omitted from posters and the opening credits of the film. Strangely, trailers featured his role prominently.
One of those flops, The Bonfire of the Vanities, also co-starred Melanie Griffith!
This was Jessica Tandy’s final role, and the film is dedicated to her memory.
Robert Benton wanted Nick Nolte to play Carl and Jeff Bridges for the role of Peter, Sully’s son.
I first rented this one back when I was 13 and on a Paul Newman kick. How unfortunate it was missing Melanie Griffith’s half-second nude scene. However, revisiting it over a decade later, I can cite this one as a potential, personal favorite.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Color of Money, Grumpy Old Men, The Straight Story, Wonder Boys, About Schmidt