Paul Newman Knocks Around Town in Fine Form
DIRECTED BY ROBERT BENTON/1994
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 27, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
An eccentric but magnetic rascal who long ago walked out on his family is finally looking to connect. By pulling them into his world of seat-of-the-pants living, good-natured scamming, and occasional outright shenanigans, the old man manages to ingratiate himself with the people who should’ve mattered most all the while. In and around this newfangled family drama are a colorful array of supporting folk. Low-level antics and aggressions play out as our protagonist comes into his own as an elder family man, all the while remaining as individualistic, as rascally as ever.
So yeah, basically 1994’s Nobody’s Fool is essentially Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) … or, rather, vice versa. Anderson seems to have taken director Robert Benton’s Oscar-nominated Paul Newman vehicle, and meticulously run it through his trademark Wes Anderson-izer. While Tenenbaums will forever resonate in the pop culture subconscious- and quite rightly so- Nobody’s Fool is a great film that had its moment in the wintry awards-season sun and then graciously receded from the forefront. KL Studio Classics, however, has seen fit to remedy that as its able, releasing the film in both attractive 4K and Blu-ray versions. Perhaps in its own retiree-aimed and “grounded” way, this liveliest of late-in-life character studies will indeed live on.
The cast is simply magnificent, made up of top-tier stars of the day who were all too willing to work for peanuts in supporting roles in frigid temperatures in a sleepy small town. (Included are Jessica Tandy in her final performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tightly wound local cop, Catherine Dent in her first theatrical film performance, Bruce Willis as Newman’s selfish boss, and cuter-than-ever Melanie Griffith as Willis’ fed-up wife). This ready commitment has everything to do with Newman and Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer; Places in the Heart), both major talent tractor beams.
Nobody’s Fool would turn out to be one of the last great films for both men. (Newman died in 2008; Benton is currently ninety years old and hasn’t directed a film since 2007’s Feast of Love). It’s one of those sweet movies with a bunch of rough edges that immediately wins audiences over. Which this story and main character demand- it’s vital that we’re fully on board with Newman’s character Sully as he lives by his own rules, and rather catch as catch can. There’s a low-level surely-but-sweet effortlessness in the pure presence of Newman here. By this phase of his career, he was so adept to playing the loveable confidence man of sorts that he could simply stroll into any scene as though he owns the place, and everyone pretty much goes along with him. Anyone who bristles back at Sully earns his exasperated respect; anyone who fights back is the a-hole.
When Sully ditched his family, he didn’t get very far. He estimates that it was about five blocks. His son Peter (Dylan Walsh), now grown, married, and with a young family of his own, one day, by happenstance, picks up his stranded dad. It is the beginning of a mending. Sully gets to work making amends with Peter the only way he knows how, by including him in his antics around town, most of which is directed at Willis’ character, who Sully insists owes him money. What follows is a stew of smalltown camaraderie fueled by petty games of one-up-manship that span from swiping snowblowers to flirting openly with other men’s wives. If there’s a weak link, it’s the music of Howard Shore. Oddly enough, the usually spot-on composer underlines the story’s sentimentality in a way that undercuts its mischievous soul.
Paramount Pictures did a 2020 HD master of the 35mm original camera negative, which has enabled Kino Lorber, per its licensing deal with the studio, to release Nobody’s Fool on 4K. This 1080p Blu-ray edition- kind of a twin little brother of the 4K release- is sourced from the same 4K scan. It’s the Blu-ray version that’s covered here, as the 4K wasn’t available to review. For anyone 4K-enabled who’s considering a purchase, that is obviously the recommended route. The Blu-ray, however, (a dual-layered BD50 disc with 5.1 surround and lossless 2.0 audio) is plenty nice in its own right.
There are several notable bonus features, one of which is a new audio commentary by filmmaker/film historian Jim Hemphill. Hemphill’s commentary makes good with all the requisite bios and resumes that we’ve come to expect on these tracks, though his presence is so natural, so casual, that it mostly defies the droning blah that often creeps into such efforts. Hemphill is careful to always loop back around to his fascination with director Robert Benton, explaining his motivations and sensibilities across Nobody’s Fool and his other work. Hemphill recollects how Benton opted to make this movie in spite of himself, justifiably leery of its winter setting, as well as its inclusion of kids and a dog. Strength of the material wins out again and again. A very worthy commentary track, this.
There are two newly produced video interviews on the Blu-ray, one with author of the source novel Nobody’s Fool, Richard Russo and the other with actress Catherine Dent. Russo is tremendously personable and appreciative of what the film did for his writing career, particularly the novel that the movie’s based upon. Dent is amusingly forthright about her experience making the film, right down to her impostor syndrome and flippantly referring to Melanie Griffith as a “hotsy-totsy” starlet of the moment. The film’s trailer is also included, newly mastered in 2K.
Finally, a word on the title… It’s never clear exactly why Nobody’s Fool is called “Nobody’s Fool”. Yet somehow, it fits perfectly. Let’s chalk it up to another charming old man’s delusions of grandeur. Sully may not be royal, but by the end he’s something of a new man.