Nobody's Fool June 24, 2015
I have a theory that everyone essentially remains a teenager until the day they die. Not the teenagers of the Porky franchise or the airheads of Clueless necessarily, but the mature, emotionally headstrong old souls of The Breakfast Club and Flirting. Some grown-up teenagers are more jaded, considerate, and successful than others, while the remaining irresponsible hooligans look like adults but, in a Shallow Hal-ish twist, are actually fifteen-year-olds still in search of an identity. Look at those middle-aged men and women with graying hair taking your order at Wendy’s. Are they not a regretful little girl or boy who doesn’t quite realize they’re trapped in an adult’s body?
Sully (Paul Newman) belongs in the camp of the charismatic loners who never took the time to accept their responsibilities and actually grow up. He has freelanced in the construction industry his entire life, most recently making the most of his aging body by suing Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis), the local contractor, to get extra pocket change.
Years ago, Sully left his family during a crucial time, leaving his now grown son (Dylan Walsh) emotionally stunted, his ex-wife understandably jilted — why he did it, though, is hard to explain. Commitment was never very attractive to him, and having a family hardly supplemented his lone wolf instincts. Part of his psyche is tarnished by guilt, but the other side reminds him, time and time again, that being a father, a husband, was never for him anyway.
Currently, Sully rooms with his former eighth grade teacher, the elderly Beryl Peoples (Jessica Tandy), and passes the time doing dirty work around town and flirting with Carl’s long suffering wife (Melanie Griffith). This has been his routine for years, decades even. So when his son comes to town, his wife and kids in tow, Sully is forced, after years of ignoring his most personal problems, to decide whether or not he wants to make up for lost time and finally become the father his son deserved, or ignore the facts and continue living in his own form of sheltered reality.
Paul Newman, even when playing the bad guy (a rare case), has never done anything besides be likable. In Cool Hand Luke, he was a should-have-been tarnished anti-hero; in The Verdict, he was an alcoholic grouch who felt it necessary to punch Charlotte Rampling right in the kisser after she betrayed him. Fact is, even when portraying a man at his lowest point, Newman has always been the guy you want to be friends with, the guy you wish were your father, your uncle, your grandfather. There is something starkly humble, and believably all-around good, about him, onscreen or off.
In Nobody’s Fool, he plays a hustler we should, in our good senses, despise. Every character trait that shapes Sully is negative; what good has he done in his life besides make friends with barflies and keep his former teacher company? But damn it all to hell: it’s impossible not to root for anyone portrayed by Newman. The film finds him nearing seventy, on the last legs of his long career. But hardly aged is his ability to give a face for the everyman, and, yes, the man-children who weren’t fantastic youths but, hesitant or not, want to make up for it.
Robert Benton, whose The Late Show recently became a favorite of mine, writes and directs. A filmmaker who specializes in the complexities found within human relationships (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), Nobody’s Fool is masterful in its characterizations. Near instantly, each character feels completely drawn, as if we knew them for years, as if we already heard the town gossip that surrounds them.
The knotty relationship between Sully and Toby Roebuck (Griffith) especially rings true. Both are so fiercely independent that their flirting with one another comes less from a romantic place and more out of a desperate one. So unhappy are they that a mutual affection comforts their lonely ills. Romance? It requires too much dedication, and both have been too scorned by the past to do anything about their already shaky feelings.
The characters of Nobody’s Fool are flawed, but we find their scarred personae more soothing than bothersome. We feel like we know these people, as if we also live in North Bath and have nothing better to do besides confide in our neighbor. Benton and his actors bring a world of lonely hearts startlingly to life. As messed up as they are, we want to be lonely with them. A-