Nobody’s Fool.

Nobody’s Fool. – movie reviews

Andrew Sarris

I HAVE ALREADY announced in The New York Observer that Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool is the Best Picture of 1994, and its star Paul Newman is the Best Actor. That’s the easy part. The hard part is explaining why and how.

My problem is compounded by the fact that Benton is the closest personal friend I have among contemporary directors. If I were on the Supreme Court I would have to recuse myself from the judicial proceedings. Not that Benton is a difficult directorial friend for a film critic to have. He is so anachronistically and atypically modest that he only half believes the good things that are written about his work, and fully believes the bad things. He also gives credit to his collaborators and never whines about their presumed shortcomings. I have stood by him on Kramer vs. Kramer, The Late Show, Places in the Heart, Nadine, and even Billy Bathgate (Leonardo DiCaprio in the Loren Dean title role might have saved the movie commercially). I have had problems with Bad Company, Still of the Night, and even Bonnie and Clyde, though I am now closer to the new mainstream on that one.

The point of my extended clearing of throat (and prejudices) is that Nobody’s Fool works so much better than I anticipated that I am pleasantly dumbfounded. Also, it arrives at a time in film history when its virtues are in particularly short supply. As I prepare to write my thoughtful rave I have no idea whether the picture will “succeed” either critically or commercially. A television forecaster of the Christmas releases has described it ominously as “highminded but slow.”

But then Richard Russo’s magnificent novel has not received the literary appreciation it deserves. It is all about emotional and financial survival in a declining community in a decaying world. I wonder whether one has to be past 60 to understand it fully. When Paul Newman’s 60-year-old Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a partially disabled construction worker, limps down a snowcovered street of North Bath, New York, I can see Benton, the kid from Texas, trudging along beside him. Sully has survived three generations of an emotionally wintry existence. He has measured the amount of energy he has to expend in order to live and breathe without any lasting human entanglements. He knows where he is and where he is going, but he has almost forgotten where he has been. He has not yet discovered the price he has paid for his forgetfulness with the frost in his heart. Though he remains nobody’s fool, the sudden appearance out of the mists of memory of a son and a grandson makes Sully realize at long last that he is not as much of an island as he thought he was.

This basic story with its many variations has been told many times, but Sully is infinitely more fun than Scrooge or Silas Marner. The charm has always come easily, perhaps too easily, for Newman. The skill and energy, too, but the depth of feeling, and perhaps the guilt, he conveys with Sully is something new and fresh and wondrous to behold. The way he peers at Will (Alexander Goodwin, another marvel from our own golden age of child acting) suggests the exploration of a hitherto unknown continent, partly within himself, and partly in the magically matter-of-fact demeanor of a little person trying to make his way in the world.

If there were nothing else in Nobody’s Fool but the sublime spectacle of Sully’s spiritual awakening, Benton would have another good movie to his credit. But there is so much more that fits in so snugly, and yet so subtly and obliquely, with the central narrative that Nobody’s Fool becomes a great movie, though without the slightest trace of grandiosity. There is the messy marriage of Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis) to Toby Roebuck (Melanie Griffith), a messiness that offers Sully one last fling with a love-sex commitment, but, as always, Sully’s timing is off, and life does not cooperate. To get Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith in an ensemble piece is good fortune enough, but to get them to perform far beyond the sketchy dimensions of their roles with both expertness and conviction attests to the director’s quiet powers of persuasion. Willis demonstrates again that he is one of the least selfish stars in the business by taking on swinish scenes that his peers would avoid like the plague. Griffith has never been less coy or kittenish as she arouses the old Adam in Sully with her womanly generosity. She and Willis give zip to a movie that would otherwise be too long on poignancy and compassion. For example, little fuss is made of the fact that the late Jessica Tandy made her screen farewell in a crucial role that is far from being a covert tribute to her distinguished career. In Nobody’s Fool everyone counts and everyone matters.

The inhabitants of North Bath lead lives of noisy desperation. Benton and Russo are both comfortable with the town’s dominant comic idiom of rueful gallows humor, generally without malice, derision, or condescension, but with a safety-net awareness that you are insulting the same person you insulted ten years ago, and the same person you will be insulting ten years from now. Indeed, a mock impatience with the fact that no situation or relationship seems to change from year to year or decade to decade shapes much of the humor in the movie. But things do change, and relationships do grow or break asunder, at a pace that seems glacial only to hotshot critics and audiences who have been taken in by the brainlessly hyped-up kinetics of most contemporary movies. More than any other film of 1994, Nobody’s Fool is on to something that is happening in ordinary lives unrecognized by the primetime media. Things like the life-and-death struggle for job security, academic tenure, workman’s compensation, and uninterrupted cash flow free of bouncing checks. Yet the resiliency of human beings on the edge of the abyss gives Nobody’s Fool its redemptive grandeur and its sophisticated understanding of non-hyped-up humanity.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

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