Over the course of writing this blog, I’ve come across plenty of films that can be conveniently defined as “almost had it.” They may have had neat ideas or interesting characters or a quirky sensibility, but something about them was so inherently flawed that it kept me from really enjoying the movie. The most common way this problem presents itself is with films that have a fantastic performance or ensemble cast (The Help or The Rose), but the writing is so dreadful and maudlin that you congratulate yourself for even being able to finish the film. Well, I’ve come across a rare version of this phenomenon where a quiet and understated dramedy about the quirky and eccentric denizens of a small town was ruined by tacking on this trite father/son/grandson tale which seemed so stale and inauthentic that it completely un-immersed me from the legitimately interesting denizens of the film’s setting. Not even the always charming and roguish Paul Newman (The Color of Money) could save 1994’s Nobody’s Fool from being an overwrought pile of kitsch sentimentality which is a shame because the film did have a number of things going for it.
In Nobody’s Fool, Paul Newman plays Sully, an old and half-crippled handyman who ran out on his wife and young child over 30 years ago (though he still lives in the same town as his ex-wife). Sully gets by on doing the random odd-job either on his own or for Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis), a local construction manager who refuses to pay Sully money that Carl may or may not really owe him. Sully also takes care of the aging Miss Beryls (Driving Miss Daisy‘s Jessica Tandy) who rents out the top floor of her house to Sully even though her banker son wants her to kick Sully out and sell the house and move into a rest home. Sully’s got a one-legged lawyer named Wirf (Gene Saks), a dim-witted but loyal best friend/coworker named Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and a whole host of other characters to populate this well-realized town, including the obnoxious cop Raymer (The Big Lebowski‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Carl’s estranged wife Toby (Melanie Griffith). One day, Sully’s son (who hasn’t seen in decades) pulls into town visiting his mother, and Sully learns that he has not one but two grandchildren. While Sully tries to make up for all of the years he lost with his son by bonding with his grandchild, Sully still has to find ways to get buy when he’s an old man with almost no prospects.
Let there be no mistake. While I did not enjoy this film (I actually had to turn it off halfway through last night and finish it today because I found all of the artificial emotions on display to be more than I could handle), Paul Newman gave one of the best performances of his career. He’s an iconic Hollywood hero and one of the greatest stars of his or any generation. Sully is a very three-dimensional role (and remarkably unsympathetic) and while Paul Newman was still drawing upon all of that old charisma and charm (because I honestly don’t think it’s possible for Paul Newman to not be charming), Sully is a pretty tough guy to root for. He forgets his grandson while he’s inspecting a house, he generally abuses his best friend, and for a good 30 years, he made absolutely no effort to have a relationship with his own kid. Yet, Paul Newman manages to make a complete person out of all of these scars and warts. Sully is a grizzled survivor and a rapscallion, and the reason that we end up caring about what happens to Sully is that Paul Newman makes him so much more than the sum of his writing. Once again, here is another stellar performance (the other being Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction) that lost out to the gimmicky and over-rated Forrest Gump.
I love character driven films. I sat through the entirety of the nearly mind-numbingly slow The Whales of August and enjoyed it because of how authentic and genuine that tale of two elderly sisters felt. I especially adore movies and TV shows full of quirky characters leading strange lives. I’m pretty sure my dad and I were the last people left watching John from Cincinnati because it was just so weird. Similarly, Northern Exposure is one of the most under-rated and quirky TV shows of all time. When Nobody’s Fool is character driven and quirky, it works fantastically. I love the characters in this movie and the actors playing them nail it. However, the heart of the film, it’s beating core is so drably sentimental and rings so completely false that it corrupts and taints everything else. It isn’t even one of those occasions where I can enjoy some parts of the film and try to ignore the part I disliked. Instead, the film seems defined by its failures even when its successes are so high.
I only recommend this to hardcore Paul Newman fans because he really knocks it out of the ballpark here. Also perhaps serious Jessica Tandy fans but I’m not really sure if that’s a group of people that exist (this was her last role). Everyone else can avoid this movie. Well, if you’re into faux-sentimentality and utterly unrealistic drivel then you may appreciate the father/son/grandson tale at the heart of the film, but for anyone who gets a little bit nauseous someone tries to force feed you obviously manipulated emotion, then take a pass on Nobody’s Fool.
Final Score: C+