FILM : Is there anything you wouldn't forgive Paul Newman?

OTHER RELEASES Nobody's Fool (15) Director: Robert Benton Drop Zone (15) Director: John Badham My Crazy Life (Mi Vida Loca) (18) Director: Allison Anders
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Robert Benton's highly praised vehicle for Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool, is the sort of thoroughly decent, likeable film that might be a lot more so if it weren't packed with helpful signals about how thoroughly decent and likeable it is: Howard Shore's soundtrack music, for example, wells up tearfully every time emotions start to grow a little tender, which they do with regularity.

Adapted by Benton from Richard Russo's novel, Nobody's Fool is set around Christmas in North Bath, a small, recession-stricken town in upstate New York, and follows a week or so in the life of Sully (Newman), the local wastrel, low-life and all-round character. Sully lives with his old schoolteacher (Jessica Tandy in her last role), engages in a running feud with his sometime employer (Bruce Willis, nicely repellent), flirts with his employer's wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith, nicely self-effacing), and - the main motor for its plot - is reunited with the son, now grown- up and a father himself, he abandoned 30 years before.

One of Benton's masters is Truffaut, and the spirit of Nobody's Fool is appropriately humane: even the villains have their moments of grace. At its best, it also has a pleasing eye for small-town exotica. The neatest tableau shows Sully playing a game of poker in which two of the participants are naked to the waist, one is a feisty idiot and one, Sully's giftless lawyer, has an artificial leg, which he has planked on the table as part of his bet. At its worst, it is shamelessly maudlin. One scene guaranteed to make cynics snort shows Sully anxiously watching his grandson overcome childish dreads as he returns said false leg to its owner. Another culminates in the line, "You know what I wish? I wish we were still friends." The prosecution rests.

Newman is the trump card. Now 70, he's not only effortlessly droll and charming, but uncannily good-looking - you can believe Toby finds him hard to resist. But for a film meant to be about redemption, this charm also poses a dramatic problem - there's no struggle in embracing a repentant sinner that the camera has been doting on from his first shot. The most misconceived moment is an in-joke about Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton co-wrote; that movie had cruelty as well as charm, and was all the better for it.

"The thing about Wes Snipes," explains a physicist friend of mine, who understands all about motion, "is that he's very good at hitting people." So he is, and John Badham's Drop Zone is full of examples of his prowess: he even gets to slug his leading lady (Yancy Butler), which is about as close as the film gets to romantic interest, though she conspicuously wears fancy lingerie under her jumpsuit. But Snipes is also very good at other things - wit, invention, range - and Drop Zone is hopeless at drawing on these.

Though its violence extends beyond fisticuffs to guns, knives and a nifty explosion on a 747, the plot is simply a pretext for the sky-diving sequences. These are so frequent and so thrillingly staged that they compensate handsomely for the silly plot - skydivers raid police computers, cop sets out to thwart them - and perfunctory characterisation: even a reliable heavy like the rent-a-psycho Gary Busey barely registers. It's a reasonably satisfying Friday-night no-brainer; Snipes deserves better.

My Crazy Life (Mi Vida Loca) is directed by Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) and has a fresh take on the standard hard-times-in-the-Hood format: it's about Girlz rather than Boyz, and it's set in the Hispanic barrio around Echo Park rather than South Central LA. It also has an innovative structure,weaving among a handful of characters' tales, granting each one not only a confiding voice-over but also a set of flashbacks to childhood and adolescence. Above all, it tends to be unusually discreet in the way it handles violence: Anders cuts away from one face-off to the night sky, and then delivers another surprise. And yet it all feels a little external - stronger on universal feminine experience (first period, first realisation all men are creeps) than the bloody dramas specific to those mean streets.

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