Nobody’s Fool (1994)

NobodysfoolEarlier this year I wrote a piece on the evolution of acting that I envisioned as a case study of sorts. The second wave of actors I attempted to analyze included the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman.

It is this last figure I wish to look at again in the context of Robert Benton’s 1994 film Nobody’s Fool. In all areas, this drama meanders along following town grump and crotchety ne’er do well Sully Sullivan (Paul Newman), who works as a freelance construction worker in a peaceful, snowy New York getaway. So, by all accounts, it seems like it should be a complete and utter bore, but it is not thanks, in part, to Paul Newman and his array of supporting players.

As I have watched more and more films in the last half a dozen years or so, there has been an ongoing trend where I tend to care less and less about substantial plot and more and more about characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love a taut thriller or an engaging mystery story, but the films that really do it for me have memorable performances that reflect a bit about the world we live in. Sometimes I even feel like a broken record, because I reiterate this fact so often, but I believe it to be the truth.

In other words, it feels utterly superfluous to go in depth about this film’s plot. It’s about a no-good Paul Newman, who left his wife, left his son, and never turned back. Now he must accept the path he chose and decide whether or not to spend his waning years finally getting to know his son and grandkid. It’s not rocket science by any means, and the film certainly feels dated, but Newman strangely does not, although his hair is a little bit whiter.

Now back to the generation of actors he came out of. They were the young, moody band of men brought up on the method that taught them to grab hold of emotions and experiences to be projected on the screen in each role they took. Dean was legendary, but his career was cut short. Brando was a giant, but slowly fell from grace and his waistline grew. Newman was famously married to his wife Joanne Woodward for over 50 years, started the charity Newman’s Own, and continued having a media presence in the late 20th and early 21st century. In other words, he aged gracefully compared to many of his contemporaries.

Nobody’s Fool nobodys1falls closer to the tail end of his career, but he has the same gleam in his eye or maybe it’s that sour smile with a hitch in his giddy-up. But it feels genuine, it feels relatable, and it feels very much like the Paul Newman many people know and love. I know I do. He’s so often a malcontent or a bum and yet we cannot help but root for him. He also has some wonderful moments to work with the likes of Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, among others, because first and foremost this is a film about relationships. These are people who have made mistakes and who are not always the wisest, but somehow we still appreciate them with all their faults and peculiarities. I guess that’s what the small town mentality does, in a way. You get to know everyone and you come to accept them for who they are. Stealing a snow blower, playing cards, drinking a beer, or buying your daily trifecta ticket just feels commonplace. That’s life.

3.5/5 Stars

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

c367a-kramervkramer1The title Kramer vs. Kramer brings to mind a film about two people, formerly married, fighting over their kid who is stuck in the middle of their feud. It has the potential for high drama and tense courtroom scenes full of malice and bitter resentment. Sounds like a real winner.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some of that, but Kramer does better. It follows the complex relationship between a working man and his 7-year old son as the newly separated dad struggles to take care of them both. It shows the pain that forms between former spouses as they try and navigate life as best as they can. It shows the pain and heartache that comes with both loving their boy so dearly. There’s a realness and a vulnerability that is extraordinarily hard to discount.

It does not dawdle and within minutes a solemn Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) tells her husband she is leaving him, and he can hardly believe her words. What comes next is the imminent trouble of balancing work and his home life. There is an emotional toll that comes since they were together for over 7 years. Their neighbor isn’t helping matters.

The frustration manifests itself in outbursts over breakfast and anger directed pointedly at others. The most vulnerable is little Billy who is a cute kid but dearly misses his mother. At first, he and his dad don’t always see eye to eye. He does all the typical kid things. Refuses to eat food, disobeys, and causes messes. The best example is the notorious ice cream seen where he defiantly starts eating from a pint of ice cream against his father’s wishes. He’s so cute, but it’s not pretty.

Work is hardly getting any better; in fact, it’s getting worse as Ted has more responsibilities to worry about at home. His friend and superior is not happy with what he’s seeing. On her part, Joanna seems mostly out of the picture, still sending cards to Billy faithfully. His only friend becomes the also separated Margaret (Jane Alexander) and they act as confidantes.

One significant moment occurs at the playground where Billy falls from the jungle gym and cuts himself before his father rushes to his crying son’s aid and runs him to the emergency room. He stays with his boy through all the stitches and tears, solidifying their bond and his resolve to continually be there for his son.

On the work front, Ted is regretfully let go and rushes to find another job. On the home front, Joanna is back in New York and a custody battle is in the making. However, neither parent understands what they have subjected themselves to. Things get ugly and it is something that neither Ted or Joanna wanted. They don’t want to make each other hurt — all they want is their son. It’s a complex flood of emotions and feelings as a product of character assassinations. There can be no nuance only “yes” or “no” and that’s the way the court will decide the outcome.

When the process is done it is decided that custody of Billy will be awarded to his mother. Gasp! However, what Ted does next is more noteworthy. He goes home to his boy and with the greatest of fatherly love he tells his boy he will be going to his mother. Billy will have so much fun with his mommy and they will get to see each other a lot. He is strong and positive for his boy while his insides nearly burst.

Then, in a scene mirroring their earlier morning, they calmly make french toast as a team, a happy fat, er and son together. Joanna asks for a meeting and Ted goes down to meet her. Her decision is yet another surprise and this time he peeps through the elevator with a smile waiting downstairs while she goes up to see her boy. It is very taxing to work through divorce. For all parties involved so Kramer vs. Kramer ends at the happiest place it could realistically be.

I admire the portrayals, however, because Hoffman’s character is far from an angel (sometimes prone to outbursts), and yet he acknowledges his shortcomings and proves just how all encompassing his love for his son is. Meryl Streep, on her part, is relatable but it is still difficult to reconcile her leaving. By the end however,  it is quite easy to feel sympathy for her and she too proves to be a well-meaning, albeit, flawed individual.

The scene that really solidified this film for me had to be when Ted is reading to his son from The Adventures of Tintin. It’s a classic moment and it hit home, because it was a story I read many a time with my own father and will hopefully get to read to my own kids. That’s what makes movies truly wonderful. When they transcend time and place making it possible for us to relate to them on even the most basic or mundane level. That is part of the reason Kramer worked for me. At it’s most intimate, it’s about connections. Between men and women and fathers and sons. Not always pretty but always an integral part of life.

4.5/5 Stars