Tuesday December 23, 1997
Before computer-generated images, before blue screens and the optical printer, even before stop-motion animation, there existed the most special effect of all, the power of the written word. James L. Brooks is royalty in this non-digital domain, and in "As Good as It Gets," his mastery of the nuances of language and emotion has turned the most unlikely material into the best and funniest romantic comedy of the year.
Calling this film's scenario unlikely is being kind. Even for a writer-director like Brooks (a multiple Oscar winner for "Terms of Endearment" and nominee for "Broadcast News") it's difficult to make a story line about a cute dog, a gay artist, an earthy waitress and an author who is certifiably mentally ill sound coherent, let alone appealing. Stars like Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt help, of course, but can they do enough?
In fact it's a mark of how magically written, directed and acted "As Good as It Gets" is that we end up loving this film despite knowing how haphazard, scattershot and almost indefinable its charm is. Like its troubled characters, convinced to make the best of things despite being perennially on the edge and at least a little bit crazy, "As Good" surmounts its weaknesses to make moving, amusing, quintessentially human connections.
At home with mania and delighted to be pushing against conventional perceptions of the boundaries of humor and romance, Brooks and co-screenwriter Mark Andrus (working from Andrus' original story) have come up with perhaps the choicest dialogue of the entire year. Ranging from killer one-liners (a crack about HMOs invariably brings down the house) to wise and evocative arias about love and relationships, these words bind us to their characters with the force of contract law.
Character is, once again, too mild a word for the personality of Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall. Having written 62 top-selling romance novels, he may be a productive member of society, but he can stand no one in it and no one can stand him. Homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and all-around misanthropic, Melvin is a sarcastic, sadistic terror whose idea of a good turn is tossing a neighbor's pesky insect dog down the garbage chute of their Manhattan apartment house.
That dog, given name Verdell, belongs to Simon Nye (Greg Kinnear), a gay artist who lives on the same floor as Melvin. Like everyone else, Simon is strafed by Melvin's acid tongue: "Do you like to be interrupted," the writer says with a snarl in one of his milder sallies, "when you're dancing around in your little garden?" Fortunately, Simon has an art dealer friend named Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who is able to keep Melvin more or less in line.
Melvin is more than a true bastard, he's in thrall to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unwilling to be touched or to step on cracks in the sidewalk, addicted to bars of Neutrogena soap he throws away after just one use, insistent on bringing wrapped plastic utensils with him on trips to restaurants, Melvin is as much a prisoner of his routines as the Man in the Iron Mask.
The only person Melvin can tolerate turns out to be Carol Connelly (Hunt), a waitress at the neighborhood restaurant where he has his daily breakfast. Still living with her mother (Shirley Knight) in Brooklyn, Carol is both unaffected and unafraid, but her life has its manias as well. She's furiously concerned and over-protective about her 7-year-old son, Spencer (Jesse James), who suffers from pervasive allergies that unhinge his life.
To Melvin, Simon and Carol, three people who barely tolerate one another, crises come calling. An unexpected altercation puts Simon in the hospital, and someone has to be found to take care of Verdell. And Carol, increasingly distraught about her son's health, takes what may be a permanent leave of absence from her job. Both these situations put pressure on Melvin to do the unheard of and reconnect with the human race, and the unexpected repercussions of what he does do are the core of what "As Good as It Gets" is about.
To see Nicholson, who frequently gives the appearance of coasting through his roles, working as hard as he does here is a wonderful thing. Discarding almost all his familiar mannerisms, Nicholson takes more care than usual with this role, maintaining the mastery of bravura humor and timing that leads to big laughs while allowing his character to be honest and vulnerable for the first time in years. As Melvin struggles, ever so tentatively and delicately, with the possibility of being a better person, we are grateful for the synergy between actor and director that allowed it to happen so truthfully.
As all-stops-out as Nicholson is, "As Good as It Gets" wouldn't succeed without its excellent co-stars, especially Hunt. Best known for her starring role in TV's "Mad About You," she has done excellent work in under-seen films like "The Waterdance" and "Kiss of Death." There's a newly visible maturity and a feisty stability to her characterization of Carol that works beautifully with Nicholson's swooping highs and lows. It's a class act and hopefully it means Hunt's days of A-list stardom are just beginning.
While Gooding reaffirms the positive impression he made in "Jerry Maguire," the fact that Kinnear does everything the part calls for is a surprise after his "Sabrina" debut. Also unexpected is the presence of several other directors like Harold Ramis, Lawrence Kasdan and Todd Solondz in cameo roles. Maybe it's them the closing credits are referring to with the line, "The actors used in this film were in no way mistreated."
Watching these people warily circle one another, trying to decide if the chance to form closer attachments is worth the risk of pain, it's impossible not to be struck again and again by Brooks' nonpareil ability to create humor out of catastrophe. While his obsessive characters invariably worry, as Melvin asks at one point, "What if this is as good as it gets?" it's good to know their creator, maybe even against his better judgment, believes in the existence of something more.
As Good as It Gets, 1997. PG-13, for strong language, thematic elements, nudity and a beating. A Gracie Films production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director James L. Brooks. Producers Bridget Johnson, Kristi Zea. Screenplay by Mark Andrus and Brooks. Story by Andrus. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Richard Marks. Costumes Molly Maginnis. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Bill Brzeski. Art director Philip Toolin. Set decorator Clay A. Griffith. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall. Helen Hunt as Carol Connelly. Greg Kinnear as Simon Nye. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Frank Sachs. Skeet Ulrich as Vincent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times