Imagine Cool Hand Luke, the Hustler or even Butch Cassidy somehow making it all the way to his sunset years. Then imagine him measuring out those years as an unemployed, virtually unemployable, construction worker in one of those small, featureless upstate New York towns -- still a knothead, still a wise guy in revolt against the conventional wisdom, still very recognizably Paul Newman. That, in essence, is Nobody's Fool.
Worn to perfection, the ads for this shrewd, agreeable, ultimately dishonest movie proclaim. But they lie. At 70, the actor doesn't look worn at all; he's trim and bouncy, the blue eyes undimmed by the passing years, the gray in his hair seeming, if anything, premature. He's playing a man of 60, and it is not a reach for him. It is, however, a problem for writer-director Robert Benton's movie. Benton can't help it, and Newman can't help it, but the actor is wrong for the part of Donald ("Sully") Sullivan, a man logic tells us should look ill used by the years instead of like a movie star gorgeously defying them.
For Sully's troubles are innumerable, and, realistically speaking, they ought to make him at least contemplate the possibility of defeat. He has banged up his knee working for exploitative Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis in another of his astonishingly good character jobs), and his amiable, incompetent lawyer (Gene Saks) can't get him compensation. Sully is long since estranged from his wife, and his relationship with his college-professor son (Dylan Walsh), who has career and marital problems of his own, is difficult. Sully rents a room from a tolerant, spirited old lady (the late Jessica Tandy) who is beginning to fail physically. His best friend (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is not quite bright and is being harassed by the town cop. Oh, yes, and he and Roebuck's wife (Melanie Griffith) are inappropriately, frustratingly attracted to each other.
None of this is permitted to get Sully down -- not for long, anyway. He may occasionally rage at his narrowing circumstances, but mostly he confronts them with a cheeky joke. Or a boyish prank: he and Roebuck keep stealing a snowblower back and forth. Or some comically self-destructive behavior -- he finally punches out that cop and lands briefly in jail -- that doesn't do him as much harm as it would if this were real life instead of a movie determined to be cheerful at any cost.
God, it would be nice to believe life is really like that: when you get old, you'll be fit and quick like Newman; if you neglect your savings, you'll finally hit your favorite trifecta; even though you live in some nowhere place, buried hip deep in snow for half the year, you'll be warmed by sweet, colorful friends who'll get up a game of strip poker when things turn a little dull.
By giving his movie a very effective realistic look, by helping his actors to shape strongly believable performances, even when they are doing implausible things, Benton lends credence to these inspirational fibs. And two important critical groups have rewarded Newman with their best-actor prizes. An Oscar nomination -- his eighth -- cannot be far behind. These are partly tributes to a long and invaluable career. But they are also rather careless obeisances to stardom's saving grace, its ability to impart a kind of unconscious glamour even to the contemplation of failure and mortality.