Nobody’s Fool (1994)

When I heard that the Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty (2003) was set in Buffalo, I was irrationally excited. I was tantalized by the idea of a high-profile addition to that thinnest of American location-based genres, the Upstate New York movie. Bruce opens with a sequence where the title character endures a series of personal setbacks (leading to his anger at God), which seemed ideal for any movie set in Buffalo, possibly the personal setback capital of the east coast. Disappointingly, though, the indignities suffered in that opening half-hour did not include a blizzard, the Bills losing another Super Bowl, or people saying “pop” instead of soda. Bruce Almighty was set in Buffalo all right, but it wasn’t really Buffalo.

Nobody’s Fool, now on DVD (without extras), isn’t set in Buffalo either. It’s set in the fictional Upstate New York town of North Bath, which is based on the village of Ballston Spa, which happens to be near my hometown. Ballston Spa is not physically very close to Buffalo, but it is spiritually. Both towns share (along with other upstate towns) a beaten-down working-class aesthetic, a sense that days of prosperity are past. In this, Nobody’s Fool shares the title of best Upstate New York movie ever, with Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 (1998), though Fool is much more accessible.

This is probably due to their respective stars; Vincent Gallo would be hard-pressed to win a charm contest with anyone, while Nobody’s Fool has the good fortune to star Paul Newman (the movie would be cripplingly depressing without him). He plays Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a shiftless 60-year-old forever dodging his responsibilities, while renting an apartment from his eighth grade teacher (Jessica Tandy, lovely in one of her final performances).

Sully’s life goes through a minor upheaval when his grown son Peter (Dylan Walsh) returns in the midst of marriage troubles, with his own son in tow. The set-up is rather trite: Peter resents Sully’s lifelong neglect, yet he’s close to making the same mistakes. Indeed, the situations here are standard family drama affairs: Sully’s abusive upbringing and avoidance of commitment, generations of mistreatment, and “like father, (maybe) like son” dynamics.

Nobody’s Fool treats small-town life with skill and appreciation. The opening shots show cars moving slowly down snowy streets, and a frozen tree falling on a birdfeeder. These images gracefully juxtapose the quaint with the decrepit; the landscapes are pretty and old-fashioned, but they’re also falling apart. Fool continues in this vein for the next two hours, conveying a sort of affable depression that floats through the air with all that snow. Writer-director Robert Benton is endlessly true to this mood of resignation, this inescapable feeling that little about the living conditions in North Bath — the weather, the houses, the people — will ever change.

He’s also true to the characters. The townspeople aren’t the lovable eccentrics of so many small-town comedies. They aren’t particularly interesting on their own, but the honesty of their lives, the way they react to Sully without popping in for nutty wisdom or convenient plot purposes, is affecting. Sully’s best friend is Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the kind of loyal and mildly retarded sidekick that’s become par for the course in an upstate movie (recall Kevin Corrigan’s “Goon” from Buffalo 66). There’s no Robert Redford-style partner in sight, and the famous faces that do appear aren’t dolled up. Bruce Willis is on hand as Carl Roebuck, Sully’s sometime boss. Displaying no big-star vanity, he casually gives one of his trademark supporting performances. Hell, even Melanie freaking Griffith is good here.

Of course, Newman is the centerpiece performer, in one of the least showy star turns in memory. He’s charming, but he finds that charm within the character, rather than himself. His is no less committed a performance than seminal old-guy turns from Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven [1992]) or Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt [2002]), yet it’s the warmest, most instantly sympathetic of these three.

I do have a few quibbles with the movie. Howard Shore’s score, perfectly audible on DVD, is sometimes drippy and overstated. Some of the supporting actors hit the subtle, sharp dialogue (adapted from Richard Russo’s novel of the same name) too hard. To inform the film with such accuracy about the slow motions of small-town life it can’t help but meander a little, which may bother some. And other than the chance to see some fine cinematography in widescreen format, there are no extras to speak of on the DVD edition.

But really, the spare presentation feels right, as does the meandering story. Life in a small town is often menial (Sully gets a flat tire lugging cinder blocks in his truck), and even flights of fancy, emerging out of boredom, seem to involve manual labor (Sully dreams of stealing Carl’s new snowblower). The slightness of Sully’s life and his minor accomplishments by the film’s end are moving on their own.

Which brings me to the one aspect of Upstate New York that Bruce Almighty absolutely nailed. Some critics complained that Carrey’s Bruce, when endowed with all of God’s powers, performed only self-serving, trivial works. I say, if you live long enough Upstate (or any small or secluded place, I suppose), it maintains a strange pull on you, paralyzing your ability to think bigger. If Sully was suddenly allowed to play God, I get the feeling he’d use his powers not to whisk away to Hawaii (as he and Griffith fantasize), or even Westchester, but to steal Carl’s snowblower again, and maybe hold off the cold for a few days. We’d like to think we all have bigger, better ambitions but sometimes, it’s a small-town world. Nobody’s Fool knows this better than most.