Robert Benton’s adaptation of this Richard Russo novel is centered in the wintry environs of North Bath, NY, where everyone knows each other so well they can be regular poker mates while simultaneously failing each other in any number of ways. Paul Newman plays Sully, an off again, on again employee of property contractor Bruce Willis (who he is suing in a personal injury claim) and the only tenant in an old Victorian owned by Jessica Tandy (in her last role before her death). Sully is woven into the fabric of the town, but he is at heart detached and cynical, and the only hint we get of any warmth are in his interactions with Willis’s wife, Melanie Griffith, who suffers her husband’s callous infidelities with a defiance that saps her verve. When Sully’s estranged son (Dylan Walsh) shows up in the midst of a marital and professional crisis, Sully becomes re-engaged, recognizing his role in the community and accepting the responsibility that comes with it, a George Bailey for the 1990s
The film is alternatively very funny and sneakily touching. Benton expertly captures the claustrophobia of a small town and even its collective ethos without letting eccentricity become cloying. Almost all of the characters are good, and Newman, who was rightly nominated for an Oscar, is perfectly suited to the material. Of Newman, David Thomson wrote:
As a young man, Paul Newman was so handsome he developed a sneer as if to frighten away the fans – the women, especially – who assumed he was ready and available. There were times when this arrogant manner seemed ready to dismiss not just most of his work, but anyone who took it seriously. He seemed to be saying, “Can’t you see – I’m not like this. I’m a real person, unfairly afflicted with movie looks. I’m Jewish!”
Newman was 30 when he first appeared in a movie; it meant he was a grown man, with hard-earned experience, before he started pretending in public. He had been three years in the Navy, as a radio operator; he had helped run his father’s store in Cleveland; he had been married and had children.
Later in life, the sneer fell away, along with the prettiness, until he was left a stoical old man with pain and losses, as well as the abiding perplexity that anyone should take him or acting that seriously. By then, he was one of the finest and most resolute old men in pictures – some achievement in a culture horrified by age.
The observation perfectly captures Newman in this picture. Newman communicates the pain and loss in Sully in barely perceptible ways, and when he does so, he doesn’t linger in a manner at odds with his core. He retreats to the crass aside or the blithe “oh well” and that’s that, making those moments of introspection and dawning even more affecting. It’s a sharp and knowing performance.
The film suffers a few missteps. Dylan Walsh, as Newman’s son, is badly miscast. He not only looks nothing like Newman, but he doesn’t share a teaspoon of his inner strength or mystery. Worse, when he arrives with family and children, they are played too broadly, with modern domestic woes and a miscreant younger child (who nicknames a child with a hitting problem “Whacker”?). So too is a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the anal town deputy, and Josef Sommer as Tandy’s cowardly son. In a movie where every other character plays the line between comic and grounded beautifully, these turns are a shame, if easily overlooked.