Straight From The Heart -- Paul Newman's Perfect In Warm, Wonderful `Nobody's Fool'

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XXXX "Nobody's Fool," with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Dylan Walsh and Jessica Tandy. Written for the screen and directed by Robert Benton, from the novel by Richard Russo. Alderwood, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Oak Tree, Southcenter, Uptown. "R" - Restricted; mature humor, mild profanity, brief nudity. ----------------------------------------------------------------- In the current issue of Film Comment, Andrew Sarris astutely observes that "Nobody's Fool" arrives "at a time in film history when its virtues are in particularly short supply."

While watching Robert Benton's sublime adaptation of Richard Russo's novel, it's hard to avoid the realization that movies like this have become an endangered species. If the majority of Hollywood's releases are culturally poisonous, Benton's finest films (including "Kramer Vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart") are a rare and flavorful antidote.

In the wake of the ongoing debate about screen violence, will anyone vote with their wallets by seeing "Nobody's Fool" - a modest film in which the only gunshot is used for harmless comedic effect?

After all, the pure, joyous decency of Benton's film is no guarantee of success. One need look no further than the box-office disappointment of "Quiz Show" - the other best film of 1994 - to understand the fickleness of the moviegoing audience. Because we

collectively donated nearly $20 million to the opening weekend of the year's worst film ("The Specialist"), compared with roughly the same amount for "Quiz Show's" entire theatrical life span, we relinquish our right to complain about Hollywood's despicable "product." We are getting what we ask for.

Brilliant performance

It's a sad state of affairs that makes "Nobody's Fool" all the more miraculous, beginning with the sheer perfection of Paul Newman's definitive performance as Daniel "Sully" Sullivan, a 60-year-old barely employed construction worker with a bum knee, a hard-luck life of his own irresponsible making, and a son (Dylan Walsh) whose own family troubles rattle the skeletons in Sully's painful closet of memories.

Sully's both sage and jester in the snow-bound fictional town of North Bath, N.Y., which in Benton's compassionate view is delicately poised on the cusp of tenacity and extinction. It's the dead end of Sully's life - a place where his eighth-grade teacher (Jessica Tandy, in her final film) is now his aged landlady - but it's also his kingdom, where he fosters a silent but mutual love for Toby (Melanie Griffith), whose husband Carl (Bruce Willis) ignores her in favor of his ditzy mistress du jour.

More than anything else, North Bath is an intersection where families, friends and everyday folks converge to confront and care for each other, to argue and aggravate, to enrage, enjoy and connect during the quiet, sad-happy moments of uneasy yet continually celebrated lives.

For Sully, who is haunted by ghosts in the dilapidated house he grew up in, the town demands a sense of humor and mischief. He gamely employs both in an amiable feud with Carl, in which the choice of weapons are a cowardly Doberman and a shiny new snow-blower that becomes a trophy for stubborn cleverness. Occasionally the rivals stage summit meetings over the local poker game, where "Nobody's Fool" reaches its peak of audaciously downplayed humor.

Superb direction

Breathing vibrant life into his gracefully witty screenplay, Benton introduces, develops and embraces these characters with seemingly effortless precision, striking a flawless balance between misery and mirth and enabling his superb cast to completely immerse themselves in the lives of their characters.

In Benton's able hands this authentic, engagingly humane movie evolves into a casual treasure of stolen moments, where nothing much happens and yet everything happens. Because Benton knows that life can best be found in a silent expression, a camouflaged turn of a phrase, and in the simple acts of compassion that make the next day worth waking up for.