One of the few consistent pleasures of recent cinema has been watching Paul Newman age reluctantly. Since, let’s say, “The Verdict” (1982), he has brought unparalleled charm to guys who refused to go gracefully into that gray twilight.
Most of Newman’s later movies have not been quite up to the standards he brought to them, however. The same pattern laid down in “The Color of Money,” “Blaze” and “The Hudsucker Proxy” reaches a peak of sublime mediocrity in “Nobody’s Fool,” a story as pat and pedestrian as they come that Newman lifts to a high level of easygoing artistry.
Set in a snowy upstate New York hamlet called North Bath - a place both as comfortable and as worn down as the proverbial old shoe - it’s about an irresponsible loser’s belated brush with maturity. Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Newman) is a construction worker who likes to think he’s free-lance but is actually indentured to the only contractor in town, Bruce Willis’ Carl Roebuck.
Sully is perpetually suing Roebuck over on-the-job injuries. To strain their threadbare financial relationship further, Carl’s a crumbum who blatantly cheats on his wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith), for whom Sully carries a torch.
But Sully’s no angel, either, which may be why, despite all they do to screw each other, he and Carl are the tightest of poker pals (and share the film’s only unconventional - and interesting - relationship).
Sully left his wife and infant son decades ago. He drinks too much. His pickup truck’s glove box is full of unpaid parking tickets.
But we know Sully is really a great guy because he helps his aged landlady (the late Jessica Tandy, who has a scene that eerily foreshadows her own recent death) and Toby likes him well enough to give him a flash of her breasts. To really bring the good guy in him out, Sully’s troubled adult son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), and grandson, Will (Alex Goodwin), come back to town, enabling Sully to exercise the paternal muscles he never used when he should have.
There’s a little recrimination, midnight bonding pranks and the requisite week in jail. Writer-director Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Places in the Heart”), working from Richard Russo’s novel, tosses in an utterly gratuitous, strip poker game to pique the interest of those bored by the mild predictability of everything else.
But a few, welcome infusions of raunch can’t jump-start the film’s extended, sentimental finale. It just goes on forever as Sully individually comes to terms with every little smidgen of his poorly led life. He even reconciles with a mean dog.
Yet Newman invests it all with an intriguing, low-key inventiveness. He works up remarkable compassion for independent old Sully that never for a second gets sloppy. You get the feeling that Newman would like to be the character’s drinking buddy at the same time he’s glad there’s not someone like Sully in his own family. It’s a lived-in performance, beguiling but not deceitful, that defines natural acting for a movie culture that’s all but drowning in showy technique and bombast.
Newman carries all of the other players to higher achievement on his ever-so-slightly stooped shoulders. Willis hasn’t been this good since, well, “Pulp Fiction,” but you know what I mean: He’s so much more charismatic when he’s really acting than when he’s trying to look like an action hero. Griffith, too, exhibits the real, complex emotions that her usual, kewpie doll casting always betrays.
And although her role isn’t much, Jessica Tandy was the one actor here who didn’t need any help from Newman. Their few scenes together are quiet but palpable revelries, two actors so charged on their mutual mastery that they don’t have to force a thing to show it, but still let us know that, if this job turned out to be their last, at least there was nothing left for them to miss.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: “Nobody’s Fool” is playing at Newport Cinemas. Directed by Robert Benton and starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Dylan Walsh and Alex Goodwin. Rated R