Nobody’s Fool features a late-in-his-career Paul Newman at his best, and Bruce Willis when he still cared.
Is there still time for Donald Sullivan (Paul Newman)? Old enough to regret a past he knows he can’t change, Sully staggers around his small town of North Bath, New York. He’s out of work – or at least he should be – after a construction accident left him with a damaged knee and without a lawyer good enough to secure him a settlement. Long divorced, he rents a room from an old woman named Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy). To amuse himself, he openly flirts with Toby (Melanie Griffith).
“Sixty years old and still getting crushes on other men’s wives. I would hope by the time I’m your age, I’m a little smarter than that,” snaps Carl (Bruce Willis), Toby’s husband. “Can’t hurt to hope. You sure are off to a slow start,” replies Sully, not missing a beat. Written and directed by Robert Benton, the dialogue here is always punchy and snappy, adding a certain momentum to a movie that’s a lot of people talking in rooms. It feels like these characters have interacted with each other a million times, their conversations and comebacks falling into an established rhythm.
The film itself feels familiar too: Nobody’s Fool is a sentimental relic, but that’s not an insult. Newman’s performance provides much of the pathos, as Sully’s starting to reach self-awareness in his twilight years. He bumps into his estranged son Peter (Dylan Walsh), who he abandoned years ago. Turns out, Sully’s a grandfather now (Peter and his family are in town visiting Sully’s ex). Does he have his shit together enough to be a part of their lives?
Nobody’s Fool is a sentimental relic, but that’s not an insult.
The formula the film follows endears, because Newman is able to make Sully both charming and an enormous screw-up. The wounds he’s inflicted won’t heal overnight, and Newman nails his quiet undertone of regret, lying just below Sully’s cavalier, old school surface. Whether or not he’ll confront himself or try to make things right is a whole other matter. It doesn’t feel like the movie is forcing Sully to change – it simply shows his shift.
Just two years after appearing in Scent of a Woman, it’s really impressive that a young Philip Seymour Hoffman booked a second supporting role in a prestige picture so early in his career. He plays Bath Officer Raymer, a wholly dumb cop who likes giving Sully tickets. Frankly, it’s not much more than a fun, small part where Hoffman gets to act like a moron. As in My Boyfriend’s Back, he does a lot of snarling, until Sully socks him in the face (it’s pretty fantastic, maybe more on-screen cops should get punched). While everyone’s bantering throughout, Hoffman provides one of the few truly comedic interludes.
But even more than Newman or Hoffman, the performer who truly impressed me was Willis. In the years since, he’s faded from big screen action roles to Redbox action roles, the common denominator being parts that don’t ask him for much. But when he’s actually trying? Like Sully, Carl is an asshole, but he’s such a well-realized asshole. You can just tell that this guy has been selfish his whole life – he shows no sign of stopping – but he’s not entirely evil. Again like Sully, he’s stuck and immature, but Willis’ performance locates “peaked in high school” without turning Carl into a caricature. Everyone knows Bruce Willis can carry an action movie, but I truly had no idea he could do dramatic work with this depth.
Spending decades running from the people who rely on you is unforgivable. Truth is, there probably isn’t time left for Sully. But it’s comforting to imagine that it’s never too late, an illusion Nobody’s Fool is able to land thanks to the way this story is told and the strength of the performances. Not only did I want Sully to make things right, I believed he still could.