As Good As It Gets

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: James L. Brooks

REVIEWED: 12-22-97

It's Christmas, time once again to wheel the curmudgeonly assholes out onto the screen and try to redeem them. Setting the stage for Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry, Jack Nicholson takes the Scrooge role in James Brooks's caustic, sweet, pleasantly manipulative As Good As It Gets. He's Melvin Udall, a novelist whose purple prose about love belies a life of snide misanthropy, prejudice, annoyance, and wicked wit. Throw in some random obsessive/compulsive disorders -- a phobia about germs, avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk, etc. -- and Melvin becomes one of the more memorable showcases for Nicholson's sneer, leer, and eyebrows.

The director of Terms of Endearment, however, is nothing if not a sentimentalist, so in addition to the sublimely malign Melvin, Brooks includes such stock characters as Simon (a simpering Greg Kinnear), the gay neighbor; Carol (an engagingly threadbare Helen Hunt), the tough waitress with a heart of gold and a sickly son; and Verdell, one of the most beguiling dogs in filmdom. Nicholson's scenes with Verdell are hilarious and heartbreaking; those with Hunt are almost convincing; those with Kinnear are cloying in the extreme. He's most entertaining, though, in his scenes with himself, spouting bon mots of such malevolent wisdom that it's sad to ponder Melvin's inevitable conversion to kind-hearted vapidity. At its best, As Good As It Gets exults in how much fun it is to be bad.

--Peter Keough

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