Donald "Sully" Sullivan (Newman) is a worn yet spry hustler living in the peaceful, snowy northern New York state village of North Bath. He free-lances in the construction business, usually with his dim-witted friend Rub (Vince) by his side. He is often at odds with Carl Roebuck (Willis), a local contractor, suing him at every opportunity for unpaid wages and disability. Sully's one-legged lawyer Wirf (Saks) is inept, and his lawsuits are repeatedly dismissed. As a way to irritate him, Sully flirts with Carl's wife Toby (Griffith) openly at every opportunity (which she enjoys). He is a regular at the Iron Horse Saloon, where he often has drinks and plays cards with Wirf, Carl, Rub, and the town sheriff.
A running joke is the repeated theft of Carl's snowblower. Sully steals it to get back at Carl for his latest failed lawsuit. Carl steals it back, placing it in the yard at his construction business guarded by his doberman pinscher guard dog. Sully, after drugging the dog, steals it a second time. Carl takes it back a final time, and leaves the dog, who is now skittish due to his drugging, at Sully's childhood home for him to find.
Sully is a tenant in the home of the elderly Miss Beryl (Tandy), whose banker son Clive (Sommer) strongly urges her to kick him out and sell the house. Family complications of his own develop for Sully with a visit from Peter (Walsh), his estranged son who is a jobless professor at odds with his wife. While he and Sully reconstruct their relationship, Sully begins a new one with young grandson Will (Alexander Goodwin). Peter’s sudden everyday presence does not sit well with Rub, but Sully tells him that although Peter is his son, Rub is still his best friend. Meanwhile, Clive is on the verge of a lucrative deal to build an amusement park in North Bath. However, the deal unexpectedly falls through when the promoter turns out to be a con man, and Clive quietly skips town in shame since he used his bank's resources to help finance the amusement park.
After being jailed for punching a police officer named Raymer (Hoffman) who has been persecuting him, Sully's luck seems to be all bad. But his son and grandson start to warm up to him, and his fortune takes a turn for the better when his horse racing trifecta ticket wins. Even the lovely Toby expresses a willingness to leave Carl, mostly due to his constant womanizing, and run away with Sully to Hawaii. Sully realizes he can’t leave his grandson and thanks Toby for considering him, just before she leaves for the airport. In the end, Sully is pretty much back where he began, boarding at Miss Beryl's. But now he is a little richer, both financially and in his soul, he's a new dog owner, and he has become the picture of contentment.Paul Newman as Donald "Sully" Sullivan
Jessica Tandy as Beryl Peoples
Bruce Willis as Carl Roebuck
Melanie Griffith as Toby Roebuck
Dylan Walsh as Peter Sullivan
Pruitt Taylor Vince as Rub Squeers
Gene Saks as Wirf Wirfley
Josef Sommer as Clive Peoples Jr.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Officer Raymer
Philip Bosco as Judge Flatt
Catherine Dent as Charlotte Sullivan
Margo Martindale as Birdy
The setting for both the book and movie, the fictional North Bath, New York, is based on the city of Gloversville in Fulton County, where Russo grew up. Nobody's Fool was filmed in the Hudson Valley town of Beacon, which was paid a $40,000 location fee for services and inconveniences. Production began in November 1993 and concluded in February 1994.
Bruce Willis reportedly agreed to a substantial pay cut to appear in the film, accepting the SAG-AFTRA scale of $1,400 per week at a time when the actor was earning roughly $15 million for his action movies.
Nobody's Fool was given a limited release on December 23, 1994, earning $92,838 in six theaters. The film was given a wide release on January 13, 1995, earning $7,142,691 over its opening weekend in 792 theaters. The film ultimately grossed $39,491,975 in North America.
Nobody's Fool was well received by film critics. The film maintains a 91% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "It's solidly directed by Robert Benton and stacked with fine performances from an impressive cast, but above all, Nobody's Fool is a showcase for some of Paul Newman's best late-period work."
Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, "Nobody's Fool is a gentle, flavorsome story of a loose-knit, dysfunctional family whose members essentially include every glimpsed citizen of a small New York town." He added, "Fronted by a splendid performance from Paul Newman as a spirited man who has made nothing of his life, Robert Benton's character-driven film is sprinkled with small pleasures; the dramatic developments here don't take place in the noisy, calamitous manner that is customary these days." Desson Howe of The Washington Post similarly remarked, "Nobody's Fool is so eloquently straightforward, it practically sings to the soul. A story about very real people caught in the everyday woes and worries of a small Upstate New York town, it shows the kind of character traits, tics and from-the-heart chatter you wish there was more of in the movies."
Paul Newman was particularly lauded by critics. Caryn James of The New York Times described the star's performance as "the single best of this year and among the finest he has ever given". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "I have been watching Paul Newman in movies all of my life. He is so much a part of the landscape of modern American film that sometimes he is almost invisible: He does what he does with simplicity, grace and a minimum of fuss, and so I wonder if people even realize what a fine actor he is."
Nobody's Fool was nominated for two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe Award, among other accolades.