As Good As It Gets
Screenplay : Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Frank Sachs), Shirley Knight (Beverly), Skeet Ulrich (Vincent), Yeardley Smith (Jackie), Lupe Ontiveros (Nora)
In James L. Brooks' "As Good As It Gets," Jack Nicholson plays what very well may be the ultimate "Jack Nicholson Character." As Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive misanthrope, Nicholson is allowed the kind of free range that suits his talents best. Whether he's snarling and threatening his wife with an axe in "The Shining" (1980), or glowering behind smug speeches about honor in "A Few Good Men" (1992), Nicholson makes a great bastard.
And what a bastard is Melvin. Homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, and generally vulgar, he spends most of his time locked up in his neatly-ordered apartment, writing pulp romance novels (can you see the irony dripping here?). He has been diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive, and it's not hard to see why. When he walks down the sidewalk, he can't stand to step on a crack or have anyone so much as brush his shoulder. When he locks his front door, he has to ritualistically turn the bolt five times. He is willing to eat in only one restaurant, and when he does, he brings his own plastic dinnerware.
Melvin hates everyone, especially his gay next-door neighbor, a painter named Simon (Greg Kinnear). When Simon is sent to the hospital after being beaten up by some men robbing his apartment, his art dealer and friend (Cuba Gooding, Jr. doing a variation on his "Jerry Maguire" riff) talks Melvin into taking care of Simon's dog, one of those pug-faced little furballs with eyes that look they're about to pop out of its head. Melvin doesn't like this dog any more than he likes Simon, evidenced by the opening scene which shows him dropping the pooch down the garbage shoot. Nevertheless, Melvin takes the dog in, and it is the beginning of one of many relationships that might eventually melt his hardened exterior.
However, the relationship central to the film is the one between Melvin and Carol (Helen Hunt), the only waitress who will serve him at his favorite restaurant. She is the kind of plain, fundamentally decent person who can tolerate Melvin, except the one time he makes a crass comment about her sick son. The relationship between Melvin and Carol builds slowly as the film progresses, with the kind of stop-start development that seems natural when a normal woman is falling for a man who seems incapable of saying anything nice.
"As Good As It Gets" is essentially a story about how inherently different people can help each other improve. At one point, Melvin asks himself, "What if this is as good as it gets?" The movie is saying that this is never as good as it gets -- it can always get better, but only through conscious effort. The film takes three people who are all unhappy in their own ways, and by putting them together, allows them to see the faults in their lives and improve them. None of them becomes perfect, but all they become better.
This is never so evident as when Melvin is talked into driving Simon to Baltimore so he can see his estranged parents for the first time in years. Melvin convinces Carol to go with them, and the three of them on a road trip together seems like a recipe for disaster. And, in some ways it is. But in other ways it isn't. The beauty of the script by Mark Andrus and Brooks is that it allows the three of them to learn from each other and grow in their own individual ways. The development of Melvin's character is the main focus, but both Carol and Simon have some growing of their own to do, and some of it couldn't occur without their involvement with Melvin.
Director Brooks has made his cinematic career with tear-inducing movies, starting with his debut in 1983, the Kleenex-happy "Terms of Endearment." Since then, he has only made two other movies, "Broadcast News" (1987) and the rarely seen "I'll Do Anything" (1994). He shows a deft touch in "As Good As It Gets," which is necessary since he is working with such potentially explosive material. The film is essentially a comedy, but there are numerous moments that strike extremely sensitive issues. Brooks is fortunate to have Nicholson in the lead, because it is by his natural charm and smirking wit that his character gets away with everything he does.
Nicholson, who by now is ranked among the greatest actors ever to appear on the silver screen, gives a finally nuanced performance that holds the film up. He has many attention-getting scenes and a handful of truly great lines, but it's the little things that are so appealing. For instance, when Melvin finally starts buddying up to Simon, making Simon feel comfortable enough to give him a congenial slap on the back, watch Nicholson's startled facial expression. It's a gem.
"As Good As It Gets" has many laugh-out-loud moments, and many that induce a kind of inner laughter. The relationships in the movie are convincing and sweet, but never sappy. There was plenty of room where Brooks could have let the movie turn cheesy, but he never quite lets it happen. He and his actors, all of whom turn in flawless performances (especially Hunt, who shows a real depth of emotion), keep the proceedings real and on human terms. We want to see these people grow, and although the script sometimes feels a bit forceful, we are still relieved when Melvin forgets to lock the door and finally steps on a crack.
©1998 James Kendrick