Nobody's Fool is to Paul Newman's career what Scent of a Woman was to Al Pacino's--generously, a "character study"; more frankly, a blatant vehicle, existing for no reason other than to give a great actor a chance to charm us. It's a much better, much less addlebrained picture than Scent, however. Though thin and a hair overlong, it's probably the mostly sheerly entertaining film that director Robert Benton has ever made.

Most of the credit for this must go to Newman's marvelously relaxed performance. He's been experimenting with character roles the last few years--in The Hudsucker Proxy, Blaze, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and Fat Man and Little Boy--and while he's done some admirable things, he's never really seemed entirely comfortable. He's a born leading man, and that's how he approaches the part of Donald "Sully" Sullivan, an elderly small-town smalltimer, long divorced and as long down on his luck. Sully's attempts to reconnect with his son (Dylan Walsh) and grandson are used as the nominal plot. But the real business of the film is depicting Sully's interaction with the various quirky denizens of his little New York burg, among them his adoring landlady (the late Jessica Tandy, in a sweet swan song), his oafish best friend and partner in oddjobbing (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his inept, one-legged lawyer (Gene Saks) and others. Sully trades wisecracks with his sometime employer, a philandering scoundrel of a contractor (Bruce Willis), and flirts with Willis' lovely, heartbroken wife (Melanie Griffith), who has a transparent crush on him. There aren't many actors of Newman's age (he will turn 70 in a couple of weeks) who could convince us of their ability to win the desire of Melanie Griffith, but with Newman, working in his leading-man mode, it seems perfectly plausible.

The script, which Benton adapted from a novel by Richard Russo, consists mainly of banter and wisecracks, most of them witty and all of them excellently delivered by Newman and his eager supporting ensemble. None of this acidity of tongue, however, can hide the softness of heart of Nobody's Fool. Indeed, it's not intended to hide it. Everything in the plot--which takes place over the holidays, no less--leads Sully to an understanding of how much he values his oddball existence, and how much he's valued by those around him. The film depends on Newman's understated performance--his offhand timing, the low-key way he registers emotion--to validate this potentially sugary dynamic. Apart from Newman's maturity and assurance, Nobody's Fool is nothing less (or more) than a remake of It's a Wonderful Life. You keep waiting for one of the characters to say, "To Sully--the richest guy in town."



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