Published Mar 03, 2013Writer/director Robert Benton has demonstrated a career preoccupation with the nature of trust and the dangers of externalizing and performing rigidity in personal morality and ideology. Whether touching on the ambivalence of divorce (Nadine, Kramer vs Kramer) or examining the criminal element and its relation to the shared delusion of social order (Twilight, Billy Bathgate), his works analyze and assess the perpetual human state of flux. The idea of making concessions and finding common ground to survive and build a society is challenged and dissected in a way that suggests harmony is impossible without the defeat of the individual ego.
With Nobody's Fool, Benton created what is arguably his most accessible take on the subject. 60-year-old Sully (Paul Newman) lives life by his own rules, performing the titular guiding worldview of functional misanthropy as a grumpy old man that refuses to acquiesce to co-workers, family or even the law.
He isn't without friends, having lived in the same place long enough to find people that understand and see through his gruff, antagonistic disposition, but the re-emergence of his estranged son Peter (Dylan Walsh) and the mortal concerns of his elderly landlord Beryl (Jessica Tandy) remind him how quickly life goes by and how fragile it is.
Even the dysfunctional marriage between his occasional employer Carl (Bruce Willis) and his wife Toby (Melanie Griffith) triggers an ounce of introspection, as does his working relationship with employee Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Toby's awareness of her husband's infidelities warns him to appreciate the things he has, while the defensive hostility demonstrated by Rub when Peter comes into the scene shows him just how lonely those around him really are.
While the endless stream of reiterated messages about community—heightened by the quaint small town environment—are a tad melodramatic, the worldly realizations about choosing battles or taking time to understand the feelings and differing perspectives of others are effectively communicated. Each character—portrayed by actors bringing heart and complexity to their respective roles—is as flawed as they are well-intentioned and hurt.
That Nobody's Fool succeeds as a comedy, for the most part, in the face of such a complex, yet mostly dismissed and overlooked, theme is quite an achievement for Robert Benton. Typically, his works are either too cutesy or too nasty to play to both a mainstream and a discerning audience, but this humble adaptation of Richard Russo's novel is possibly the closest he's come to sharing with the world his views on giving up a bit of yourself to appreciate and help others.
Nobody's Fool screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7pm on March 4th, 2013 as part of the Books on Film discussion series. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo will be in attendance to discuss the film, bringing an author's insight into to having his acclaimed novel adapted to screen. The film is not widely available on DVD so this is a great opportunity to check it out. (Paramount)