Believe it or not, Paul Newman will be seventy this year. That serves to remind us how long it's been since the crass young cowboy called Hud and the Christlike rebel Cool Hand Luke passed into the realm of movie legend. It also tells us that the heroes of Newman's late-middle period--Fast Eddie Felson Revisited, say, or the boozy lawyer of The Verdict--are not far behind on that journey.

Now there's a character to cherish from (dare we say it?) the winter of Paul Newman's extraordinary career. With Nobody's Fool, a story of loss and redemption set in a grimy upstate New York town, Newman recaptures the grandeur and magnetism of his life before the cameras. His most recent films--Blaze, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Hudsucker Proxy--all suffered from major defects, but this time we understand in detail the actor Newman has become now that his hair is nearly white, his midsection thickened and his wisdom complete.

This movie icon may still be a bit too glamorous to portray Sully, a downtrodden, gimpy-kneed construction worker who ran away from his family years ago and, at sixty, finds himself renting an upstairs room from his old eighth-grade teacher. But we soon forget both those famous blue eyes and our preconceptions. Through a steady accumulation of word and gesture--the way Sully looks at his Budweiser bottle, his dark glee in stealing a snowblower from his mean-spirited boss, the acute look on his face as his newfound grandson dives into an ice-cream sundae--Newman builds a character we care about and feel for--despite the odds. We hope Sully can bring a little love into his defiant, disappointed life, because Newman gives us a personal stake in him.

The setting, conjured up by the admirable novelist Richard Russo, is fictional North Bath, New York, in the middle of another brutal winter. In this backwater of the Mohawk Valley, the dark streets are always blanketed by half a foot of dirty snow, the buildings are broken down and the struggle to survive the repetition and dullness of small-town life hangs over every character like a palpable chill. Miraculously, though, Nobody's Fool is anything but depressing. Robert Benton, writer of Bonnie and Clyde and director of Kramer vs. Kramer, finds humor and heart in North Bath. Benton and Newman explore the cantankerous Sully's hurts and secrets with subtle skill, but they pay just as much attention to his sly rebellion and his arrested development. He's still clambering over fences and punching out dumb cops, as if to hold the responsibilities of adulthood at bay.

But when Sully's resentful, troubled son (Dylan Walsh) happens back into his life, an unlucky man gets one last chance to turn the corner.

Happily, Nobody's Fool also boasts one of the most vivid casts of supporting characters in recent memory. Bruce Willis is the picture of comic odium as a scamming, philandering businessman, and Melanie Griffith gives Willis's long-suffering wife just the right mixture of yearning and bitterness. This time it's easy to ignore Griffith's breathy little-girl act.

Jessica Tandy appears as Sully's kind but willful old landlady, Miss Beryl, and the fact that this was the Driving Miss Daisy heroine's last film is tenderly underscored in several prophetic lines. Most notable: "I think God is zeroing in on me." Stage director Gene Saks is wonderful as Sully's bumbling, one-legged lawyer, Wirf, and Pruitt Taylor Vince hits the mark as his best friend and workmate, Rub--I.Q. as yet to be determined. Philip Bosco has a nice bit as a crusty judge, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the blustering Barney Fife of the piece, and Margo Martindale makes the most of her scant minute on the screen as a world-weary bartender.

They constitute a rich gallery of types and provide exactly the right backdrop for Newman's striking portrait of a man who's undone by time and his own misdeeds but who might still win the trifecta, embrace a grandson or put his soul back together. The dirty snow may keep piling up in North Bath, but optimism is hard to kill among life's long-shot players.

Paul Newman's forty-year movie-acting career shows no sign of abating, either, despite forays into race-car driving and spaghetti-sauce production. This is surely his finest work in years, and while Nobody's Fool may be small-town, his skill launches it into the big time.


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