Moviegoing holds few pleasures greater than watching an established star completely inhabit a role that exactly suits his personality and abilities. And seeing Paul Newman in "Nobody's Fool" defines that pleasure.
"Fool" is Newman's 52nd feature (his debut was in "The Silver Chalice" 40 years ago), but it's more than the weight of accumulated experience that makes his work so satisfying here.
For Newman is so right for the role of Donald "Sully" Sullivan, an aging, stubbornly independent black Irish scamp, that he infuses it with the easy enthusiasm and sense of the new usually associated with the young and the restless. It's been so long since Newman has been this satisfying that he projects the excitement of an undiscovered new talent, the kind you can't wait to tell your friends about.
Newman is so revivified, in fact, that he has sparked his co-stars to give better than average performances. Jessica Tandy (always delightful), Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith (both somewhat less reliable) all had to pump up the volume just to keep up with their star.
What Newman can't do, however, is turn "Nobody's Fool" into a truly memorable film. Taken from a discursive 549-page novel by Richard Russo set in the mythical upstate New York town of North Bath, "Fool" has to contend with the predilections of its writer-director, Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart").
On the plus side is a pleasure in fine writing as well as a concern for character. "Nobody's Fool" is a film that cares about its people, addled and disheveled though the residents of North Bath may be, a film that revels in the cracked qualities of their diverse humanity.
That kind of sentiment, however, is best leavened with something a tad grittier, and "Nobody's Fool," as it meanders from one shaggy situation to another, is finally too soft and unfocused for too long to consistently hold our attention. A little more rigor would have gone a considerable way.
Described by the novel as "the uncontested master of the futile gesture" and a "case study under-achiever," Sully is the center of a variety of relationships in North Bath, many of them absentee. A 60-year-old construction work gypsy who abandoned his family when his son was barely a year old, he is closest to a mental case co-worker nicknamed Rub (for Rubberhead), convincingly played by Pruitt Taylor Vince.
But during this particular holiday season, "a time for normal people to do normal things," as someone puts it, Sully, always prone to misadventures, gets re-involved with his family with a vengeance. His estranged son comes back to town burdened by a failing marriage, he attempts a relationship with one of his grandchildren, and he tries finally to deal with the memory of his own errant father, long since dead.
Though it suffers from its lack of focus, one of the paradoxes of "Nobody's Fool" is that when it tries to get more real, when it concentrates on the glum dissatisfaction of Sully's overly earnest son Peter (Dylan Walsh), it falls in love with its own ordinary wisdom and forfeits part of our interest.
The best things about "Nobody's Fool" are its sideshows: Sully's verbal sparring with his landlady and former eighth-grade teacher Miss Beryl (Tandy), his erratic sometime-boss Carl Roebuck (Willis) and his beautiful but neglected wife, Toby (Griffith). Sully's ambivalence toward Carl, the kind of demented macho tricks they play on each other, turns out to be the film's most original and intriguing relationship.
Though, as always with Newman, we never quite feel he could have been as bad a guy as the script insists he was, he remains the reason to see "Nobody's Fool." The film's various difficulties inevitably fade from memory, but his performance lingers, as the great ones always do.
* MPAA rating: R, for "some language and nudity." Times guidelines: It includes scenes of topless women in non-sexual contexts.
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Paul Newman: Sully Jessica Tandy: Miss Beryl Bruce Willis: Carl Roebuck Melanie Griffith: Toby Roebuck Dylan Walsh: Peter Pruitt Taylor Vince: Rub Squeers A Scott Rudin/Cinehaus production, in association with Capella International, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Robert Benton. Producers Scott Rudin, Arlene Donovan. Executive producer Michael Hausman. Screenplay by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor John Bloom. Costumes Joseph G. Aulisi. Music Howard Shore. Production design David Gropman. Art director Dan Davis. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* In limited release at General Cinema's Avco Cinema, 10840 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 475-0711, and Cineplex Odeon Universal City Cinemas, Universal City, (818) 905-3767.