A New-Wave Fool in the Classic Tradition

Nobody should be fooled by Nobody’s Fool’s marketing campaign.

This new Tiffany Haddish-starrer is being sold as just that: a Tiffany Haddish vehicle, a predictable result of her newfound popularity.

And yes, the latest from Tyler Perry certainly starts as such. If you’ve seen one of Haddish’s other four movies released this year — FOUR! 4!!! — or her 2017 breakout in Girls Trip, then you know what sort of comedic stylings you’re in for: seen one, seen them all, as they say. And I don’t mean that as a pejorative, because her shtick’s far from stale (at least for now). She’ll keep extending that expiration date as long as she continues to pick roles, like Perry’s titular fool here, that add some substance to her usual act so that it’s rooted in character, the best way to pull off light portraitures.

She plays an ex-con who moves in with her sister (Tika Sumpter) after getting out of jail; her mother — a glorified, and glorious, cameo from Whoopi Goldberg (take a break from The View and come back to the big screen, Whoopi! We miss you!) — turns the cold shoulder after a lifetime of putting up with too much of her shit. At first, the premise seems destined to lead to obvious yucks revolved around Haddish acclimating her prison-sized personality to the outside world, and its intrinsically-antagonist relationship to her sister’s strait-laced lifestyle.

And yet, Nobody’s Fool actually focuses on that sibling, a woman fiercely committed to living the dream life she’s spent her whole life fantasizing about. She even keeps a list on hand from her childhood that includes the sort of copiously-detailed, idealistic goals kids believe are completely attainable; she’s already checked off “great job” and “great apartment’, with only one more to go: “great man.” She’s long-distance dating a prince charming — because, of course her young self defined “great man” as what society traditionally tells kids, largely through artistic fairy tales, what a great man looks like.

There’s only one, small, quasi-unfortunate problem: they’ve never met.

In fact, she’s never even seen his face, ostensibly because he works on an oil rig without service…but something fishy is going on here (pun intended).

And here’s where the aforementioned trailers lie. Though Perry follows this narrative channel along its expected route — right into the sea   he doesn’t mine it for easy laughs. Rather, Nobody’s Fool juxtaposes Sumpter’s faraway obsession with her refusal to requite the affection of a local barista (Omari Hardwick) with whom she’s struck up a friendly flirtation.

An unblemished, proudly high-class broad (what other type would keep such a list?) couldn’t possibly end up with a coffee boy!

And yet, he’s not merely a coffee boy (not that there’s anything wrong with being a coffee boy); rather, he’s the coffee shop’s owner. And, he generously offers Haddish a job, because he’s also a felon and understands the difficulties of her transition.

Wait, he was locked up too? AND he’s already sired two kids from a failed marriage?! AND AND he shares Haddish’s predilection for illicit substances?!?!

Sure, he’s admittedly seven years sober, and now the leader of the community’s AA group…

…BUT BUT BUT, he doesn’t meet any of the requirements on Sumpter’s list! So, sorry, he’s out!! The mysterious corporate oil rigger on some distant vessel is the one for her, obviously a better match…if a strictly digital relationship can be trusted.

What begins as merely an amusing studio comedy soon becomes a romcom love triangle that unfolds in the long shadow of America’s mass incarceration problem. The development of Sumpter’s character’s arc reflects this tonal shift: the movie’s beginning leads the audience to believe they’re in the sort of story that conforms to Sumpter’s initial rosy perspective, but the drama that subsequently ensues reminds us of the impossibility of living in such childhood fantasies. Sumpter may insist on staying in her perfect movie, but life has a way of forcing you to change your expectations based on the cold, hard truths of society.

Ideal worlds should never trump readily attainable happiness. Refusing to acknowledge the positives of your current state might lead you astray from the happily ever after life often does provide for those willing to engage with it. We love to live in our fairy tales — why else are we buying tickets for movies in the first place? — but refusing to bend those black-and-white yarns with respect to reality will not make them magically come true. There’s a reason her romance with Hardwick is brought to life in typical Hollywood depictions: love at a roller-skate rink, love at a drive-in, a lovely walk in the park, a sunset kiss, a Say Anything proposal with music blasting leading to a rainy kiss. Heck, even the sex scene is shot and scored like softcore.

And I don’t think this artifice is unintentional; I mean, Haddish literally talks directly to the camera at one point, directly referencing that she’s aware she’s in a movie! Nobodys Fool understands movies proliferate the sort of fairy tales that pervert kids’ life expectations (the same sort Whoopi fabricated years ago about her daughters’ father to allow them to believe they come from perfect origins). By changing the narratives we tell, by letting some less-than-ideal facts into our fiction, we can literally change the world. Or, less loftily, better prepare each other for the realities of our lives ahead.

All of these ideas are hammered home by how Nobody’s Fool changes course from being yet another straightforward Haddish comedy to something much more, and her now-signature brazenness further deepens these themes. Its no-holds-barred approach feels like a reaction to her character’s newfound freedom, and previous lack thereof. Instead of adopting her sister’s excessive patience, she knows, after being locked up, the value of time, and goes for what she wants — mostly men — when she wants it, societal judgement be damned. Though some call her a slut, they’re just conforming to the same sort of stereotypical beliefs that compel society to believe former inmates and recovering addicts are any less worthy.

Though one interpretation of the title connects to the age-old notion that love makes a fool out of humans, transforming them into just that — “Lord, what fools these mortals be” — the name also relates to the foolishness, in the naive sense, of clinging to abstract plans concocted many years and experiences ago. And Haddish plays the classic fool here, whose naturally-outlandish persona inherently satirizes the arbitrarily prim-and-proper norms and normalcy of the establishment, a way of being based arbitrarily on traditions that might be just as archaic as Sumpter’s infantile vision of her life. Tiffany is fooling around with society’s foolish ideas, revealing the truths they mask; she’s a new-wave fool in the classic tradition.

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