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‘Nobody’s Fool’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1995

"Nobody's Fool" is so eloquently straightforward, it practically sings to the soul. A story about very real people caught in the everyday woes and worries of a small Upstate New York town, it shows the kind of character traits, tics and from-the-heart chatter you wish there was more of in the movies. And as construction worker Donald "Sully" Sullivan, the most charismatic one of all, Paul Newman turns in one of his most satisfying performances.

In the movie, adapted from Richard Russo's novel, Newman lives gamely with failure, past and present. He walked out on his wife and infant son some 30 years ago. The house he inherited from his father sits empty and boarded up, a rotting mausoleum to his traumatic childhood. Alone and limping from a work-related fall, he spends his time scrounging jobs from unsympathetic builder Bruce Willis. He's going nowhere slow.

But when Newman's grown-up son (Dylan Walsh) visits his mother (still living in town) for Thanksgiving, the wheels of Newman's redemption begin their moral revolution. Invited to join the family for lunch, Newman is confronted with the son he never raised, and who's out of work, as well as two young grandsons -- one called Wacker, who likes to hurt people, the other Will (Alexander Goodwin), a shy boy who needs a little courage-building. When, after a domestic squabble, Walsh's wife (Catherine Dent) leaves with Wacker, Newman invites Walsh to work with him and takes a sudden interest in the nicer kid.

"If you weren't a father to me, how come you're a grandfather to Will?" asks Walsh.

"'Cause you've got to start someplace," says Newman.

With its homespun values, archetypal townsfolk and a central character filled with intrinsic goodness, "Nobody's Fool" smacks a little of Frank Capra. Writer-director Robert Benton shares Capra's genial compassion for everyone. (Even Willis, as a deadbeat who sleeps with his secretaries while wife Melanie Griffith stays neglected at home, is sort of charming.) And Benton, who made "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart," is also wedded to all's-right-with-the-world finales.

But Benton's flair for comic observation and character richness is very much his own. In this film, no one, no matter how minor, is shortchanged. It's a pleasure to spend time with everyone, including the late Jessica Tandy, as Newman's feisty and devoted landlady; Walsh, Newman's resentful but ultimately forgiving son; Pruitt Taylor Vince, the slow-witted local who wants nothing more than to be Newman's best friend; and Gene Saks, a one-legged lawyer who is as devoted to representing Newman in court as he is incompetent.

As the one person who refuses to buckle, a man of irreducible pluck, insight and wit, Newman makes this movie his. He's so generous with his friends, so good at insulting authority figures who deserve it and so trusting in dumb luck, he's got the whole town eating out of his hand. Even his sworn enemies -- the jittery neighborhood cop who has it in for Newman's faulty pickup truck, or the banker trying to run Newman out of his apartment -- shake their heads in almost-friendly frustration. Why is it, says a slightly besotted bartender one night, that after all these years, Newman is starting to look good to her?

"I grow on people," he explains. Coming from Newman, the answer feels more like an apology than conceit.

NOBODY'S FOOL (R) — Contains nudity and profanity.

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