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‘Nobody’s Fool’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1995

"Nobody's Fool" is a gentle portrait of a hamlet in "Ironweed" country, a little patch of peeling clapboard and worn blacktop. The only tavern in town, the Iron Horse, is like the bar in "Cheers," only the interior is as dreary as the wintry landscape of New York state. There is an eccentric on every bar stool.

Every night or so, the boys gather for a round of poker and long-neck Buds. Sully (Paul Newman), the title character, usually loses because that's what he does. A penny ante construction contractor, Sully has spent most of his 60 years failing at things. He's suing the only guy who gives him work, Carl (Bruce Willis), who is a regular at the game along with Sully's one-legged lawyer (Gene Saks) and Rub -- short for Rubber Head -- the village idiot (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

Sully, who has a good heart underneath that crusty exterior, gives the slow-witted Rub work when he can and thinks of the perpetual child as his best friend. And why not? In most ways, Sully's still a kid himself. Then with the winter holidays comes a last chance to grow up and become a father to the son (Dylan Walsh) he had abandoned as an infant.

Robert Benton, who also wrote and directed "Places in the Heart" and "Kramer vs. Kramer," has almost too much affection for this "Our Town"-like band of players. An adaptation of the novel by Richard Russo, the story is on the sticky side and the characters tend toward the adorably wacky. But Benton's unhurried pace suits the mood and should allow the actors, led by Newman and the late Jessica Tandy, to take off their shoes and relax into the roles.

The trouble is, they never really do. We're always aware that we are in the presence of Great Actors. Newman, already making room in his trophy case for Mr. Oscar, is likable as a curmudgeon, but all the dirt in the world never transforms him into a working stiff. He remains the glamorous leading man.

Tandy, luminous to the last as Sully's landlady, Miss Beryl, has a line that was sadly prophetic: "I've got a feeling God's creeping in on me. I've got a feeling this is the year he lowers the boom." But the role, her next-to-last, is a funny, life-affirming one -- adjectives that also apply to the movie itself.

Whatever its faults, it is humble, adult fare and welcome in this age of grandiose children's games.

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