As Good As It Gets

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: James L. Brooks

REVIEWED: 12-22-97

Director James L. Brooks has his finger in so many pies, he doesn't actually need to direct. He currently executive-produces The Simpsons for Fox TV, and previous productions such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi still generate "Nick at Nite" royalties. But Brooks appears to crave the challenge of crafting the perfect movie comedy--one with emotion bubbling through the laughter, a film where we fall in love with the characters in two hours flat.

Sad to say, he seems to be drifting further from this goal. Terms of Endearment offered brazen sentiment, and Broadcast News provided unforgettable comedy. I'll Do Anything hardly counts in his filmography, since its original conception as a musical was gutted after poor test screenings. Now comes As Good As It Gets, and the overwhelming impression is that Brooks, Tri-Star, or both have been spooked by the failure of the director's previous mutated monster. Right down to an inexplicable title change--the original was Old Friends--this new film reeks of worry, effort, and obsession with the response of critics and the public.

Not that there isn't plenty to enjoy in As Good As It Gets, and not that the audience won't like what it gets. Chief among the film's pleasures is Jack Nicholson, perfect as Melvin Udall, a prolific writer of pulp novels who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and equal-opportunity bigotry. Melvin's routines--avoiding sidewalk cracks, daily breakfast at the same restaurant--are constantly besieged by the unpredictable lives of his waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), and his neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear). Carol, who cares for a son with debilitating allergies, barely puts up with Melvin's eccentricities, but Melvin sees her as the only woman who might learn to love him. When Simon, a gay painter, is beaten and robbed, Melvin agrees to help him out in various ways--taking care of his dog Verdell, driving him to see his parents in Baltimore--partly to impress Carol with simple decency.

The fun of As Good As It Gets comes from watching Nicholson while Melvin's half-conceived schemes to win Carol's heart backfire. On their road trip, Carol is rapt with empathy while Simon recounts his stormy childhood. Melvin interjects with his own tragic coming-of-age story, but his acerbic misanthropy won't let him play the martyr; pretending to be sympathetic is simply beyond his gifts. When Carol repeatedly rejects him, his pessimism is confirmed and a darkly gleeful smile appears.

But this subtle and funny performance isn't integrated into a believable story. Helen Hunt is also fine as a witty but beleaguered single mother who wants desperately to believe in romance, yet these two characters never seem to inhabit the same world. So much time is invested in developing their idiosyncrasies that, when they do connect, it feels false--as if the movie has simply given up on the problem it has posed. More than anything, the movie suffers from excessive tinkering. Judging from the sketchy plot and abrupt transitions, As Good As It Gets has been cut to emphasize the sharpest dialogue and to make the structure more conventional. It's even possible that most of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance as Simon's art dealer was axed, leaving a shell of a role that even Gooding can't enliven.

The fatal flaw rests with the third main character, Simon, unconvincingly minced by Kinnear. There's absolutely nothing to him--and this is the role that could have sparked something between the principals, the way Rupert Everett did for My Best Friend's Wedding. As it lies, the movie's central romance is like a couple of lines that suggest a shape but never quite meet. As Good As It Gets has all the elements of a classic comedy, but it's afraid to put them to proper use. The funny dialogue and fine actors can't quite balance the filmmakers' fatal caution.

--Donna Bowman

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