Running time: 139 minutes
Screenplay: Mark Andrus, James L. Brooks
Director: James L. Brooks
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight
As Good As It Gets is great, but not as much fun as it used to be. Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is an arsehole, frankly. Self involved, rude and uncaring of other people's feelings. He is also an author, writing popular romantic fiction. Melvin has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and lives his life via a series of ticks, quirks, and an overpowering urge to be clean. In spite of Melvin being so unlikable, Nicholson, in one of his best ever roles, makes him a full character that you can get to like and even begin to root for, while cringing at the way he treats everybody he comes into contact with.
|The road trip from hell begins, and only one of them was happy about it.|
As part of Melvin's obsessive routine, he always eats at the same café, at the same table and is served by the same waitress Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), pretty much because she is the only member of staff able to tolerate him. When Carol has to take some time off to care for her critically ill son, Melvin's routine is all thrown out and he has to get her back as quickly as possible. This means using some of the fortune he's earned writing to pay for top-of-the-range healthcare for Carol's son. This causes their relationship to take an awkward turn as it's unclear from Carol's perspective if Melvin is only interested in getting Carol back to work or if there is a romantic motivation. At first that would seem ridiculous, but throughout the course of the film we see these two characters spend time together and it becomes more plausible.
When Simon is brutally attacked in his home, Melvin is roped into looking after Verdell while he recovers, and this is another change that is difficult for Melvin to cope with at first, but comes to change his relationship with Simon (and Verdell), and Melvin, Simon and Carol make for an unusual and dysfunctional group of, for want of a better word, friends.
Running into financial difficulty and unable to find his artistic muse, Simon has little choice but to travel to his parents to ask them for support. Melvin, who by now is rather attached to Verdell, agrees to drive, and convinces Carol to come along to make things less awkward. Insulting introductions complete ("Carol the waitress; Simon the fag"), the three of them set off. In spite of Melvin's unpleasantness, there is a touching moment between him and Carol when they are out for dinner, during which Melvin describes his attempts to improve himself in light of Carol's earlier assertion that she won't sleep with him. It's beautifully crafted and played note-perfect by Nicholson and Hunt.
|Carol, having unexpectedly received the best compliment she's ever had.|
Watching As Good As It Gets in the 90s was a great deal of fun. Back then it probably would have got an 8. Nowadays, we are more in tune with the damage that can be inflicted on people when they are treated the way Melvin treats people, so there's less laughter and more cringe. In addition, we are currently in a grip of right-wing fervour, where treating minority groups the way Melvin does (and worse) has gained a sense of legitimacy, thanks to a rabid press who can't tell the difference between patriotism and racism. It's much less comfortable seeing Melvin's attitude towards homosexuality, race and women when it's coming from those in charge, supported by the media. Is it fair to lower a score due to the political climate at the time you watch it? I think so.
But, if you can put that aside and make like it's 1997, this is still a well-crafted story about three people that fit together even though they really shouldn't.
Todd at Variety did not enjoy it very much, but Scott, Eric and Patrick at Three Movie Buffs all seem on a par with me.