Nobody’s Fool: Book and Movie

In a previous post, shortly after beginning Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, I had this to say:

It’s not quite as funny as Straight Man (one of the funniest books I’ve read in some time, on par with Chabon’s similarly themed Wonder Boys), but then it’s not quite as depressing as Empire Falls either. It strikes a good balance, making it both humorous and moving.

This assessment remains accurate, but I have a little more to add now that I’ve finished the book. I also took Joe’s recommendation to see the movie version, so I have a few thoughts on that as well.

The Book
This is an amazing and beautiful book. Russo’s ear for dialogue is always pitch perfect and always makes a connection with the reader, causing either laugher or insight into the personalities of his characters. He clearly loves his characters, and his description makes you love them too, even when they’re fairly unlovable. The main character, Sully, is a hard-as-nails 60-year-old curmudgeon who abandoned his wife and son when the latter was an infant. Since then, he’s refused to take responsibility for anyone or anything, he’s constantly humiliated and degraded his best friend, he’s been in and out of jail, and he’s never apologized or shown vulnerability to anyone. And yet, he’s so well developed that you can’t help feel sympathy, if not empathy, for him.

When his son reenters his life and introduces him to his grandson, a clear opportunity for softening up this crotchety old man presents itself, but Russo never reduces his characters with sentimentality. Though we get a glimpse of why Sully might be such a hard man (he was abused by his father when he was a child), you never get the impression that Russo is making excuses for him. Sure, you understand the ghosts that haunt Sully and see how such issues could do irreparable harm to someone, but none of this excuses the way he’s treated his own son. His son doesn’t excuse it, Sully doesn’t argue the point, and as a reader you don’t feel moved to do so either.

In the end, Sully has indeed grown and developed. He’s accepted responsibility for a few things in his life, and he’s even allowed a few people to do him some significant favors without rewarding their generosity with scorn. That said, even the ending of the book makes a point of resisting sentimentality, which would be way too easy. Sully’s gains are modest, and there’s no getting around the fact that age 60 is a little late to start changing people significantly. The book leaves you interested in where the twilight of Sully’s years might take him, without dismissing the long, hard trip his life has been.

Oh yeah, though it might be hard to imagine it based on the heaviness of the themes address in this review, this book is laugh-out-loud funny too.

The Movie
First, a disclaimer: it’s really tough to watch a movie, let alone review it, objectively when you’ve just finished reading the excellent book upon which it was based. Upon reflection, this was actually probably a pretty good movie, for what it was, and I do agree that Paul Newman deserved his Oscar nomination. It’s just that the book was so real, so convincing in its portrayal of its characters, that I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was, well, wrong. Though I know the book was a fiction, I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was betraying the truth that the book presented. As the scenes in the movie pieced together the highlights, I kept having two thoughts: “wow, this is going by too fast; are we there already?” and “but that’s not how it happened!” At any rate, I’d like my review to be something a little more meaningful than just the self-important cliche, “The book was way better.” Whether or not I will succeed is up to you. [end disclaimer]

The book was 550 pages long and rich in description, so I don’t fault the movie for trimming story lines and collapsing others (e.g., Bruce Willis’s character was a composite of at least three distinct characters in the book). In fact, this technique works surprisingly well for much of the movie; the story feels a little flatter, but the meaning is left pretty much intact. And I suppose that the filmmaker can be forgiven for softening up the title character and sentimentalizing him a bit in the very way that I pointed out the book did not. This is a Hollywood movie, after all.

I do find fault, though, with distorting the essential truth. Minor variations hurt the movie a bit throughout,* but in one particular instance, near the end, a major breach significantly changes the whole point. I won’t give it away, because it might ruin both the book and the movie (hint: it involves Melanie Griffith’s affections), but it gives Sully more credit than he deserves, takes away something important from his son’s character, and generally turns a fairly dark personality study into a warm, snuggly, feel-good moment. Eech.

As I expected I would, I have focused on the negative aspects of the movie, but, as I mentioned in my disclaimer, I think it was probably a good movie for what it was and I would still recommend it to people who have no intention of reading the book. The acting of the entire cast is strong (even Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis are bearable), with especially high marks for the always-incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jessica Tandy (in her final role), and Paul Newman,** who is particularly good in the title role. And of course it had an excellent story to work with, which was, for the most part, told quite well. I guess that’s the problem with reading books. They ruin otherwise perfectly good movies.

* Viewers who didn’t read the book must wonder why the Doberman pinscher was referred to as “broken” when it showed no real signs of ill health. In the book, Sully’s drugging of the pooch gave the dog a stroke from which he never fully recovered. This is important, because it illustrates how Sully manages to break or hurt everything he touches; though it’s rarely intentional, it’s almost always foreseeable and preventable. Also, this changes the whole meaning of the observation made by Bruce Willis’s character, “He reminds me of [Sully].” This line comes directly from the book, but in the movie it seems like he’s just calling Sully a dog. The sense that Sully is broken, both physically (his bad knee has him hobbling pathetically throughout) and figuratively is much more poignant and accurate. This is just one of the many “minor” stretches.

** As a brief aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Newman will be returning in the next film version of a Richard Russo book: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls. Russo wrote the screenplay for that one, though, so presumably there will be no funny business with the truth of the story.