Resigned to Christmas

What counts is doing right by kids and dogs

Published: Dec 21 2013, 01:01:am

Friday, January 13, 1995.
NOBODY'S FOOL. Based on the novel by Richard Russo. Music by Howard Shore. Written and directed by Robert Benton. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier's warning "occasional nudity, very coarse and suggestive language."
    Biz buzz can be heard linking the names Paul, Rob and Oscar. Their feature, Nobody's Fool, is touted as a contender in the picture, actor and director categories.
    With Paul Newman said to have a lock on a nomination, writer-director Robert Benton's winter-light drama opens here today. By happy coincidence, January 13 is also the day that Academy Award ballots go into the mail in Los Angeles.
    Their subject could be timely. If, as the political pundits say, white male rage is the secret ingredient in the so-called Republican revolution, then Benton's parable of curmudgeonly persistence rewarded is the very thing for the new Newt-onians.
    Set in a once-prosperous small town in upstate New York, it stars sexy senior Newman as Donald "Sully" Sullivan, an injured construction worker coming to terms with life in the freelance economy. As his story unfolds, he can either embrace family values or Toby Roebuck (Melanie Griffith), the wife of his sometimes employer and poker-playing nemesis, Carl (Bruce Willis).
    Throughout, unfortunately, Benton lets us to know we are in the presence of Art. His Nobody's Fool is a low-key picture suffering from its own self-importance.
    A generation ago, in his classic directorial catalogue The American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris created the category "Strained Seriousness" for artists who commit "the mortal sin of pretentiousness." In 1968, it included the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet and Tony Richardson.
    Today, we can add the Texas-born Benton. Best known for the Oscar-wining Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984), he can't resist over-sentimentalizing responsibility to kids and dogs.
    Set between U.S. Thanksgiving and Christmas, Nobody's Fool is based on the novel by Richard Russo, a graduate of a college creative-writing program. Its tone of rust-bucket resignation reminded me of 1987's Ironweed, the Jack Nicholson-Meryl Streep vehicle adapted from William Kennedy's tale of drunks in pre-Second World War Albany.
    Admittedly, Benton's opus is more entertaining. Even so, filmgoers should be suspicious of any story in which an unreconstructed rascal's circle of friends includes a dimwit, a wastrel and a lawyer with a wooden leg.
    Newman, who's made a career out of playing small-time Big Men, effortlessly adds Sully to the list. Sadly, the film's only authentic emotion is generated by Jessica Tandy in her last screen role.
    Ailing during the filming, she steals the show as Sully's indomitable landlady. As Miss Beryl, she plays a woman aware that "God is zeroing in on me this year."
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NAME GAME — Yes, there's already a Nobody's Fool available in the video stores. The directorial debut of Jonathan Demme's ex-wife Evelyn Purcell, it was a 1986 theatrical release. Based on an original screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth (Crimes of the Heart) Henley, it was a romantic comedy. Rosanna Arquette starred as a would-be actress involved with Eric Roberts.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1995. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Both Paul and Rob did, in fact, receive Oscar nominations — Newman for Best Actor and Benton for Best Screenplay. Neither won. For Newman, it would be his ninth nomination of a lifetime total of 10. Remembered for his philanthropy as well as his acting, he carried home an honorary Academy Award in 1986, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994. His single acting win was for The Color of Money (1986). For Benton, the nomination would be his seventh of seven. He could console himself with the fact that he already had a matched set, the screenplay and director trophies for 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer.

Christmas Countdown:  Mixed Nuts (1994); Black Christmas (1974); Home Alone (1990); The Ref (1994); Santa Claus - The Movie (1985); Prancer (1989); One Magic Christmas (1985) Gremlins (1984); Scrooged (1988); A Christmas Story (1983); Die Hard (1988).