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Nobody's FoolNobody's Fool

(American, 1994, 110 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Robert Benton
Based on the novel by Richard Russo

Paul Newman . . . . . . . . . . Donald 'Sully' Sullivan
Jessica Tandy . . . . . . . . . . Miss Beryl Peoples
Bruce Willis . . . . . . . . . .Carl Roebuck
Melanie Griffith . . . . . . . . . . Toby Roebuck
Dylan Walsh . . . . . . . . . . Peter
Pruitt Taylor . . . . . . . . . . Rub Squeers

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

North Bath, New York, is a town where nothing happens. "Sully" (Paul Newman), a sometime construction worker, is the man it happens to. And Robert Benton has made epic cinema out of it.

posterSully is an adolescent living in the skin of an old man. Emotionally rootless in his home town, he's adrift from the network of mutual obligation and love given and received which defines maturity. Sully ought to be the center of his extended family; instead, he lives on its margins, watching it slowly break apart. Vera, his wife, has divorced him. His son, Peter, is an out-of-work college professor, his marriage eroding in front of him. Sully's grandson, Will, is growing away from even the thin comfort the splintered family can offer. Sully's friends aren't exactly poster boys for responsibility. There's "Wirf" (Gene Saks), his lawyer, who's rapidly drinking his way toward disbarment. "Rub Squeers" (Pruitt Taylor) worships Sully for his what-the-hell manner. "Jocko" (Jay Patterson) is a sturdy hand at poker, but not a stellar moral philosopher. Sully divides his time between suing his boss, "Carl Roebuck" (Bruce Willis), when he isn't leching around after "Toby" (Melanie Griffith), the wife Carl cheats on as a matter of course. Sully's life isn't exactly a tapestry of virtue.

North Bath itself is exhausted, economically ailing, and scrofulous, a perfect backdrop for Sully's decline. This is a town that just does not seem to have benefited by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Only his landlord, "Beryl Peoples" (Jessica Tandy), his old eighth-grade teacher, expects more from Sully. Sully puts up with her frustration at his failure to be more than he is, and seems bound to wind down his life to a quiet, boozy finish in the backroom of the local tavern.

posterBut then Will, his grandson, shows up at the doorstep of Sully's life, and there's no one to take the boy's life in hand but old Sully. In a half-dozen tiny, exquisitely realized incidents, Sully and the boy grow up together. What happens in North Bath is nothing less than the coming of age a group of people of all ages, a story more emotionally enriched than six dozen exploding-head horror films and automatic weapons melodramas. This is internal action, the hardest kind for actors to manage.

Nobody's Fool seems a half-remembered vision of the great live television dramas of Horton Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, and Rod Serling. An entire emotional world is seen through a tiny sliver of the human landscape. Benton had ventured into this territory, well-populated with emotionally-wounded eccentrics, once before, in the quiet little masterpiece The Late Show (1977). For his part, Paul Newman lifts Sully into the pantheon of fine character parts he has played in what is turning out to be his Indian summer as an actor (Blaze, The Hudsucker Proxy, Road to Perdition). On the tired streets of North Bath, Sully joins a cohort of other little people living at the ragged edge of the American dream. Through him, they will learn to make of this place of limited expectations something grand.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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