As Good as It Gets (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As Good as It Gets is a perfect Christmas release, not because the story takes place during the Yule season, but because many of the plot elements are straight out of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. There's more than just a little Scrooge in Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), the most unpleasant man in Manhattan. And, like Scrooge, the unwilling sinner is on the road to redemption. Instead of four ghosts, we have four living, breathing entities (one woman, two men, and a dog), but the result is the same. By the time we leave the theater, the warmth of love has melted the coldest heart on Earth. That's the reason this is called a "feel good" movie.

As Good as It Gets is really two related movies in one, which explains the surprisingly long running time. While 138 minutes is fine for an epic adventure or a weighty drama, it makes a lightweight effort like this seem a little bloated. The film is ambitious: it tries to wed the modern-day, non-supernatural A Christmas Carol with a traditional romantic comedy. Director James L. Brooks, who does these kinds of movies as well as anyone in Hollywood, has moderate success. As Good as It Gets is not a positive triumph, but it does bring a smile to the face and, perhaps in some cases, a tear to the eye.

Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a successful author who lives the life of a recluse. When the movie opens, he's depicted as so thoroughly rotten that it actually becomes difficult to root for him, even once he begins to mend his ways. He's a homophobic, anti-Semitic racist with an intense dislike of dogs (he throws one down a garbage chute) and people. Every time he opens his mouth, something vicious comes out. The neighbors in his Greenwich Village apartment building all avoid him, and the waitress at his favorite restaurant barely tolerates his presence. To make matters worse, Melvin is afflicted with an obsessive/compulsive disorder that makes his behavior seem even more strange. He brings his own utensils when he goes out to dinner, he refuses to step on sidewalk cracks, and he wears gloves all the time.

Then something happens to change Melvin's life. One of his neighbors, a gay artist named Simon (Greg Kinnear), is beaten up by a group of robbers. Simon's dealer, Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr.), forces Melvin to care for Simon's dog. Gradually, Melvin comes to love the little animal, and, after discovering a previously-unsuspected wellspring of humanity deep within himself, he begins exercising it in other ways: paying a doctor to care for the sick son of his regular waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), and offering Simon support when he comes home from the hospital. Of course, no one can change overnight, and there are times when the old Melvin rears his ugly head, leading to plot complications.

Nicholson is wonderful as Melvin the jerk. He delivers the acid one-liners with real venom, has perfected the irritating mannerisms of an obsessive/compulsive individual, and generally makes it easy to accept the character as the last person you'd want to spend any time with. As the kinder, gentler Melvin, however, he's not quiet as successful. Vulnerability doesn't come easy to Nicholson, and the prickly side of his personality interferes with our acceptance of Melvin as a new man. We get the feeling that as soon as the end credits roll, he's going to fall back into his old habits rather quickly. He does have some great lines, though. (For example, when explaining how he writes women so well in his books, Melvin comments, "I think of a man, then I take away reason and accountability.")

Helen Hunt, last seen on the big screen in Twister but best known for her role in TV's "Mad About You", gives real breadth and depth to Carol, a woman who lives to serve her son and who doesn't know how to cope with Melvin's attention. Like Melvin, the events in As Good as It Gets transform Carol, but her gentler, gradual personality shift is more believable. Hunt does a good job portraying Carol's weariness early in the film, followed by an almost-childlike joy as she rediscovers herself. Alas, she and Nicholson never really click, which puts something of a damper on the romantic storyline.

The real surprise is Greg Kinnear, who turns in a more solidly dramatic performance than we had a right to suspect based on his past record. In Sabrina, Kinnear displayed a feckless charm, but here he's required to dig deeper. Simon, an already-emotionally-wounded individual, has suffered a massive betrayal that has robbed him of the will to live, and Kinnear manages to capture the essence of this individual and bring it to life on screen. The supporting cast includes veteran actress Shirley Knight as Carol's mother, Skeet Ulrich as one of Simon's models, and a scene-stealing dog.

Ultimately, it's the quirks and details of As Good as It Gets' script (by Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus), rather than the broad strokes, which make the film enjoyable. Essentially, this is a formulaic, connect-the-dots tale which offers few, if any surprises. Fifteen minutes into the movie, you'll be able to guess exactly how it will all work out. As a result, the chief pleasure for the next two hours is watching the characters grow and interact as they traverse the familiar path. As Good as It Gets may not quite live up to its title, but it doesn't fall unacceptably short of the mark.

As Good as It Gets (United States, 1997)

Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Skeet Ulrich
Screenplay: Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks
Cinematography: John Bailey
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1