As Good As It Gets

Gambit Weekly

DIRECTED BY: James L. Brooks

REVIEWED: 01-12-98

James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets kicks off with a nastily hilarious bang. Irascible New Yorker Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) spies his neighbor's dog about to urinate in the hall of their luxury highrise apartment building. When he can't entice the pooch into the elevator, Melvin grabs the dog and throws him down the trash chute. This opening sequence will deeply offend members of PETA and leave everybody else howling. What follows will keep you laughing until suddenly those tears in your eyes derive from the picture's blindside attack of the heart. Hollywood doesn't make a romantic comedy any better than this one.

Adapted by director Brooks and Mark Andrus from Andrus' original script, As Good as It Gets tells the story of three people caught in a maelstrom of ill will that subtly turns into a love fest. Melvin is a misanthropic romance writer. He makes millions but lives a life of cranky isolation. Melvin suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and takes mean pleasure in saying the rudest things to anyone and everyone he encounters. He particularly detests neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), owner of the offending dog, Verdell (Jill). Simon is a sensitive gay painter, and Melvin squanders no opportunity to insult Simon's lifestyle and art.

Melvin's only chosen interaction with other people comes when he dines at a restaurant near his apartment. The restaurant's staff detests him, and only one waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), will consent to serve him. Melvin doesn't spare Carol any more than anyone else, but she has learned how to handle him, a skill Melvin himself recognizes and admires. Carol is a world-weary single mom who lives in a tiny apartment with her ailing son, Spencer (Jesse James). And when Spencer's illness requires Carol to quit her job, Melvin is provoked to an act of generosity for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, Simon is viciously beaten by burglars, and Melvin is forced to help him, too, though not without considerable bitching.

Carol (Helen Hunt) gets through to Melvin (Jack Nicholson) in James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets
The performances in this movie are exceptional. Comedian Kinnear, who made such an auspicious debut in Sabrina, here proves himself no one-role wonder. He gives Simon's sexuality a comedic spin but also reveals the character's humanity and decency. Hunt brings her trademark naturalness to the table with terrific effect. Her Carol is no glamourpuss, but she's still sexy as all get-out. And Nicholson is in top form. The filmmakers state that the role was not written with him specifically in mind, but no other actor could conceivably be as effective in the role. Nobody does nutty better, and Nicholson pulls off the lovable just as well -- and without sacrificing his character's quirky core. Moreover, those wild eyes and marauding eyebrows made me laugh even when nothing much was going on.

But the suppleness of Andrus and Brooks' screenplay is the great strength of As Good as It Gets. The story bends itself around into odd positions with a sensuous grace. The comedic writing is strong from beginning to end. The jokes are routinely politically incorrect and often downright mean, but that doesn't stop us from laughing. And we forgive ourselves because we know we're supposed to disapprove of Melvin, who gets off most of the film's one-liners.

But funny as this material is, it's also plenty smart about human psychology. Carol's relationship with her mother (Shirley Knight) is developed with unusual insight. And Carol's self-contempt about feeling bad shows a canny understanding of how people make things even worse for themselves than they need be. The picture also nicely illustrates how good deeds can be good even when they're executed for selfish reasons. At first, Melvin really only wants to exploit Carol, but that doesn't mean the help he provides her isn't genuine and life-altering. Best of all, the picture keeps sneaking up on you with its sentiment. When Carol challenges Melvin to pay her a compliment, he comes up with, "You make me want to be a better man," and it hits us like the punch Muhammad Ali used to floor Sonny Liston. We don't see it coming, and it absolutely knocks us out. The same can be said for the whole picture. I seldom feel this way after a movie, but this one was so freshly entertaining, I wanted to stand and applaud.

--Rick Barton

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