"Nobody's Fool" plays everybody for a sucker. Conceived as a starring vehicle for Paul Newman, it's more like a float in a parade that allows him to wave magnificently at us from above as he is pulled along in stately splendor. He's not really acting, other than acting just like Paul Newman.
Newman plays Donald "Sully" Sullivan, a ne'er-do-well who's eked out a subsistence level living in Bath, N.Y., as a sometimes construction worker, sometimes con man, sometimes petty thief. He's very much the town character, flitting in and out of the lives of Bath's prominent and not so prominent citizens, always leaving behind the pixie dust of charm and the bitter dirt of disappointment. He can always be counted on to let you down.
I never bought it for a second. There's something so movie star and Oscar-desperate about Newman in this role that he seems completely one-dimensional. With his big, perfect pink face, his craggy, perfect profile, his wonderful hair, his lean and athletic figure, and a cameraman sworn to preserve his beauty as if in amber, he seemed every inch Paul Newman and not one inch the sad and pathetic Sully Sullivan. He had no squalor, no fallen flesh, no bad denture work, no odor of sour perspiration and lost dreams; Newman is Sully Sullivan as impersonated by Butch Cassidy.
Think, by way of contrast, of the way that a John Turturro gives himself up when he enters a part, the way he subsumes himself in the character until there's no him left at all, no issue of ego or vanity or beauty. Or think of Newman's own "Hud" or "The Hustler," in which the actor's powerful sexual charisma knotted up with a deep sense of inner dilemma to present riveting, complex characters. You saw a little of that Newman in "The Color of Money" but you see none of him in "Nobody's Fool." Thus the movie feels oddly phony from its very core outward.
It gets worse. The movie seems not to be set in Bath so much as in a mythical and beloved Hollywood burg called Actorsville. In Actorsville, everybody's a character actor, with a twinkle in his or her eye, dead-perfect comic timing and a sheen of highly polished professionalism, as he or she just waits to unleash a moment of well-crafted shtick. There's no banality or stupidity or hesitancy. People don't talk -- they banter or quip. The guilty parties are Gene Saks as a sad-sack lawyer, Bruce Willis as a loutish construction company owner, Melanie Griffith as his ignored and betrayed wife, Catherine Dent as the understanding bartender in the joint where Sully and his cronies gather to celebrate another day's passing.
Of the principals, only the magnificent Jessica Tandy emerges with dignity intact. As Newman's landlady and unofficial guardian angel, she's naturalistic and authentic; one doesn't sense her waiting for her big moments. As Laurence Olivier said to Dustin Hoffman when Hoffman asked how he did it, "It's called acting, my boy."
The plotting takes Sully through a number of minor domestic crises that feel both inevitable and unsurprising. His loser son (Dylan Walsh), a failed college instructor with his own disintegrating marriage, returns to town emitting vapors of self-hatred and gaudy pathos. Sully takes him on as the third member of his free-lance construction crew, upsetting the delicate emotional balance with Rub Squeers (Pruitt Taylor Vince and, excuse me, but should that be Vince Taylor Pruitt?), the one person in Bath who loves and respects him who must therefore be the one person most injured by him. Sully's ex-wife is cruel to him -- as well she should be. He talks dirty with Griffith, who shows him her plasticized breasts in reward. On and on it goes, far more anecdotal than dramatic in nature, never truely building toward anything except big moments for the cast.
The secret argument being advanced is that underneath Sully's irascibility and tendencies toward petty betrayal, the nasty old goat has a soul worth saving and that redemption isn't quite out of the question. Yet the movie -- and Newman -- never make him real enough to care.
Starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis
Directed by Robert Benton
Released by Paramount