Dylan Walsh

Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


The Lake House (2006, Alejandro Agresti)

There may be a pseudo-sly Speed reference in The Lake House, which reunites stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, but it’s a spoiler. Unfortunately it is not Bullock’s Speed 2 co-star Jason Patric as her wet towel boyfriend (Patric infamously replaced Reeves in the sequel). Instead, Dylan Walsh is the wet towel boyfriend. His performance is just as boring as the exceptionally thin role is written.

And it also may not be a Speed nod because it would show some personality from the filmmakers and they truly have none.

Lake House is not an action movie about a bus. Instead, it’s a romantic drama involving a magic mailbox and seemingly magic dog. Bullock is a newly-out-of-residency Chicago doctor who lives in the “present” or 2006. We soon find out Reeves is in 2004. They have lived in the same house at different times; a stilt house on a lake somewhere near Madison, Wisconsin. The house is ostensibly a dump—no one lives on the lake, someone exclaims because Lake House also has magic realistic values—even though it’s gorgeous and designed by world renowned architect Christopher Plummer, who is also Reeves’s father. Only we don’t find out about the history of the house until almost the third act. And, as with many things in David Auburn’s shockingly pedestrian script, stops being important immediately following it getting introduced in exposition. Everything in Lake House is disposable. Including a bunch of logic in the third act.

First act is nearly romantic comedy with Bullock crying at work (because she cares so much about her patients but, thanks to Auburn’s lousy sense of pacing, probably is just mopey because she dumped Walsh at some point in the recent past) and Reeves trying to get his life back together after moving back to the area after four years away. He makes housing developments instead of being a fancy architect like dad Plummer and younger brother Ebon Moss-Bachrach (who is somehow even less present than Walsh). He wants to fix the stilt house, which makes sense because it’s where he grew up and Plummer—who’s a jerk, but not a monster—verbally and emotionally abused Reeves, Moss-Bachrach, and their mother. Then Bullock and Reeves find out the mailbox at the house is magic and they can write to each other through time.

Cue up the endless terrible letters Reeves and Bullock write to one another as voiceovers. At least when they’re reading each other’s letters, there’s some acting to it. When they’re just thinking their letters and having back and forth conversations—Bullock has to drive two hours and twenty minutes—in the best traffic—to get from new home Chicago back to the house in Madison. Or maybe they’re standing at the mailbox and writing back to each other, which kind of gets explored—the film has zero interest in the time travel aspect of the story; Auburn’s script doesn’t have a single neat time travel-related moment. The only reason it gets away with the romantic comedy thing is because the film introduces split screen to show Bullock and Reeves being separately charming. By the end the split screen is still occasionally in use, but never well-utilized because Agresti’s direction is so boring.

Second act is then Reeves and Bullock exploring the time travel mailbox and falling into a chemistry-free long distance love affair. Because eventually Reeves starts stalking Bullock in the past, when she’s got super-long hair and is entirely dependent on lawyer boyfriend Walsh who doesn’t have any reason to want a girlfriend in his yuppie lifestyle. Should’ve gotten Jason Patric.

Anyway.

Second act is also all the revelations about Reeves’s past with Plummer. The worse the revelation gets, more the Reeves tries to bond with Plummer. It’s inexplicable behavior. The only thing Auburn seems to care about in the screenplay is the architecture monologues from Reeves, Plummer, and Moss-Bachrach. The monologues are bad, but at least they’re distinct. And Plummer can make it seem legit instead of terrible. Moss-Bachrach’s the worst, Reeves is nearly middling. Agresti’s inability to direct conversations hurts with the monologues. Alejandro Brodersohn and Lynzee Klingman’s editing is choppy, but it seems like it’s Agresti’s composition more than anything else. He’s got no rhythm to the scenes. Occasionally, when Bullock or Reeves is charming enough you wish the movie were better, you wonder how a better script might have entirely changed things.

But then Agresti does something weird and bad—like his extreme long shots for conversations—and you realize it’s just the production. It’s broken in too many ways.

Bullock’s character is bad. She doesn’t get the “maybe reunite with Walsh” storyline until into the second act and it entirely flushes her doctor storyline potential. Her mom (Willeke van Ammelrooy) is around for occasional scenes, but—like Moss-Bachrach with Reeves—there’s never any surprise at the magic mail box. It’s totally normal stuff. Pedestrian like everything else about Lake House.

Bullock’s performance is probably the best anyone could do. Maybe ditto Reeves? The movie skips the motivation and development scenes where he nice guy stalks Bullock in the past and possibly jeopardizes destroying the entire timeline. Not really because Auburn never addresses any of the time travel elements and explains away Bullock seeing Reeves multiple times and having no idea she’s seen him before because she forgot what the guy she ran off to San Francisco with when she was sixteen to become a singer. You’d trust someone with that terrible a memory to be your doctor.

Okay.

Terrible part. And Shohreh Aghdashloo somehow gets an even worse part as Bullock’s new boss.

Reeves is… mostly harmless. It’s totally his movie, which is bad since his reconciliation arc with Plummer is even worse than Bullock and Walsh rekindling. But the part isn’t as bad as Bullock’s.

Technically, I suppose Alar Kivilo’s photography is fine. The editing’s bad, the directing’s bad, the script’s bad, Nathan Crowley’s production design (and Agresti’s shot compositions of it) is bad. Rachel Portman’s score could be a lot worse. The soundtrack’s really bland stuff, including a Paul McCartney song from 2005 playing in 2004 because it seems like there should be a Beatles song at that moment—the dialogue makes the song sound like a Golden Oldie too. Lake House is full of really dumb gaffs. Like, an obvious staircase where there shouldn’t be one. Or Reeves not being able to figure out his dog is a girl until Bullock tells him she’s a girl. The dog. Reeves knows Bullock is a girl because he stalks her.

Bad costume design too. Like silly.

Still, until the third act, there’s at least the potential for a good ending. Then there’s not and it’s almost a relief because it’s so lacking in ambition (as well as being dumb as far as the narrative’s internal logic goes). But it’s still a bad ending. The Lake House takes place over four years and ninety-nine minutes. It’s not abjectly terrible or anything, but it’s an entire waste of time.

Another dumb thing—well, two so real quick—The Lake House title doesn’t mean jack for Bullock and Agresti’s deathly afraid of directing in the lake house. He avoids it at all costs. It’s constantly aggravating.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alejandro Agresti; screenplay by David Auburn, based on a film written by Kim Eun-Jeong and Yeo Ji-na; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; edited by Alejandro Brodersohn and Lynzee Klingman; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Doug Davison and Roy Lee; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Alex), Sandra Bullock (Kate), Dylan Walsh (Morgan), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Henry), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Anna), Lynn Collins (Mona), Willeke van Ammelrooy (Kate’s Mother), and Christopher Plummer (Alex’s Father).


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