By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 13, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

One of the reasons Paul Newman fills the screen so perfectly in Nobody’s Fool is that the movie fits its star as precisely and personally as a favorite old pair of jeans that mold to the seat just right. Based on a novel by Richard Russo and written and directed with easy finesse by Robert Benton, Fool is the small, understated story of Donald ”Sully” Sullivan, a 60-year-old construction worker in an upstate New York town where it’s always cold, always rusty, always snowy winter. Sully’s got a bum knee, a bum ex-marriage, a bum relationship with his grown son (who is following in his father’s work-booted footsteps with his own marital problems). He’s also got a philosopher-bum’s low expectations. He’s a tenant in the ancient house of his eighth-grade teacher, Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), who loves her former pupil because he treats her to the same gruff but decent bite he gives everyone else — not like she’s some feebleminded old lady about to die. In the course of the movie, Sully makes a little progress with his son (Dylan Walsh); a little progress with his on-again, off-again employer, Carl (Bruce Willis); a little progress with Carl’s pretty, neglected wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith); and not much progress with his knee.

Not much of a plot? Don’t be fooled. The best thing about a story so subdued, so contained —at least when it’s done well, and Fool is done exceptionally well — is that, in the quiet, we can really hear the characters breathe. And none breathes as naturally as Newman, an actor who’ll be 70 this month playing a 60-year-old man who’s not heroic, not possessed of extraordinary prowess or style or a way with guns or 28-year-old ladies. Sully’s just a guy limping through town in his worn jacket and plaid shirt for a beer at the bar. And Newman makes the work of acting look like no work at all.

Newman does something else, too: He inspires everyone else to improve their game. As Carl, Bruce Willis is the best I’ve ever seen him — smirkless, calm, just good. As Toby, Melanie Griffith is softer and more womanly than I’ve ever seen her (although why she feels compelled to flash her breasts for Sully is a mystery — honey, it’s cold upstate). And most energizing of all is the brisk, unmushy pas de deux between Newman and Tandy in what is the late actress’ final role. Freed from the valuable-old-vase roles she seemed destined to play at the end of her career, Tandy blooms here all over again, and the two great, disciplined pros radiate warmth in their work together. Nobody’s Fool shines too, with intelligence and grace and the natural light of fine moviemaking. Like a shot of superior whiskey, it’s a sharp comfort in the grayness of winter. A-