Warm, but unfuzzy character study of an aging small-town ne’er-do-well has Paul Newman playing an older version of his signature scapegrace. A flop at just about everything he’s tried, he spends a winter week bumping into his past, present & future, uncomfortably reconnecting with an extended family of rejected friends & relations: Ex-Wife; Ex-Employer, Ex-gal-of-his-dreams, estranged Son, Grandson, work partner. Only to find, to his surprise, how essential he is to everyone in town even as he wades thru the unraveling mess of his so-called life. Wry, human-scaled, beautifully observed & deeply touching in the hands of writer/director Robert Benton (from the Richard Russo novel*), the film holds surprising parallels with Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE/’48 (they even toss in a dilapidated house to restore, a land-grabbing villain & possible jail time), but gives humanistic affirmation without resorting to celestial interference & wingless angels. (How this small gem got thru the ‘90s studio system is a miracle big enough to earn Clarence those wings.) And what clever casting: ringers like director Gene Saks as a one-legged lawyer; Melanie Griffith & an unbilled Bruce Willis, both fine & unexpectedly relaxed; Jessica Tandy, sublime in her last role; and up-and-comers like Margo Martindale, Philip Seymore Hoffman & Dylan Walsh all shining in support.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Newman’s final acting role (excluding some vocal work) was in EMPIRE FALLS/’05, a mezza mezza HBO two-parter taken from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book.