Nobody’s Fool (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sully (Paul Newman) seems to be an adolescent stuck in an aging man’s body. Running from responsibility has become a habit so consuming that he is unable to hold onto a steady job, has not formed a family ever since he walked out on his wife and son who was barely a year old many years ago, and finds himself living with his eighth grade teacher. When his truck gets a flat tire while on the job, he decides to hitchhike to get back to town. To Sully’s surprise, the person who pulls over is Peter (Dylan Walsh), the son he barely knows but is nonetheless friendly and willing to make a connection with him.
Based on the novel by Richard Russo and screenplay by Robert Benton, “Nobody’s Fool” has a protagonist who is not at all easy to like since he is as stubborn as a mule, but we warm up to him, at least to a degree, because the execution behind the inevitable changes he undergoes offer intelligence, insight, and sensitivity to make arc worthy of our time.
One of the characters advises another at some point that there are times when less is more. That counsel should have been applied to the picture because it is riddled with too many characters who are interesting but are not given enough time to develop. Officer Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for instance, is mostly played for laughs. We see that he is overenthusiastic about his job but we are unable to ascertain why he is so angry with Sully. Surely it is not just about Sully not paying his traffic tickets. There seems to be an untouched backstory involving the two. Also, Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince) considers himself as Sully’s son despite the fact that they are only co-workers. What justifies him to have these feelings toward Sully? The situations are there but background information is lacking.
When the focus turns on the relationship between estranged father and son, the picture comes alive. There are very strange bonding sessions, like stealing of a snow blower, but we are able to look past them because it is clear what they both want from each other. Though they may not admit it, they want to be loved a little more, especially Sully having realized that he is getting older and Peter’s marriage is going through a rough patch. Instead, the affection that Sully wishes to have had the chance to express to his son is given to his grandson (Alexander Goodwin). Their interactions command fragility. Due to Sully’s history of irresponsibility, we anticipate for him to hurt or disappoint the child.
I craved more dialogue between Sully and Mrs. Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his former middle school instructor. Since Newman and Tandy are very good at concealing and disguising emotions, it inspires us to look closer and dig deeper into what is going on between them. Also, while the performers have the ability to put emphasis on certain words without drawing our complete attention to their techniques, they also have a way of communicating using their eyes only. Because their verbal exchanges are limited, reaction shots become key in understanding the relationship.
If there is a message in “Nobody’s Fool,” directed by Robert Benton, perhaps it is this: it is rarely too late to change the course of our lives for the better. A little bit of luck helps, too. What could have been a cheesy lesson is peppered with great performances and layers among relationships worth looking into. It inspires hope from within instead of shoving it down our throats.