It must be me, but I’ve never been able to warm to James L. Brooks As Good As It Gets (1997); a rather contrived and plodding, dark romantic comedy; something of a celebration in its mismatched archetypes, or rather, people who can never be entirely happy together, but oddly enough, cannot live without at least superficially knowing about each other. At the time of its release, the movie was considered good enough to earn a Best Picture nomination; as well as nods for its screenplay and, of course, Jack Nicholson, who basically plays a variation on his trademarked benevolent bastard and sleepwalks through the part of the obsessive/compulsive, Melvin Udall.
It’s a clever man who knows his limitations and stays within them so that he never ruffles the scope of audience expectations. Nicholson’s forte is undeniably ‘the arrogant prick’. It just suits him to a tee. To what extent Nicholson and his many archived screen alter egos are one in the same is open for discussion. For Nicholson always seems to be ‘on’ – playing the part we expect of him, or rather behaving in ways that would brand most any other person – actor or otherwise – a distasteful presence to be around, yet with Jack, only seems to make him more loveably obtuse and endearing. Go figure.
Melvin Udall really gives Nicholson his exercise too; what with dumping poor defenseless little dogs down apartment building laundry chutes; spewing gay-bashing barbs at his next door neighbor, artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), and repeatedly taunting customers at his local eatery, even as he tests the patience of smart-mouthed waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt); Nicholson is undeniably the hard-candied treat in this film. He just can’t help himself and we accept him – flaws and all – as the guy most likely to get his head smashed in by a total stranger for saying something disarmingly rude and/or obnoxious.
That the screenplay by director Brooks and Marcus Andrus relies almost exclusively on Nicholson to carry the load for this rather pedestrian affair is a genuine shame. Not that Nicholson isn’t up to it. He is. It’s just that without him there’s really not all that much to recommend what’s going on elsewhere in this movie’s pseudo-chi-chi, yet strangely working class world of sycophants, hypocrites, frustrated single mothers and rather milquetoast upscale artsy-fartsies who simply cannot get along for more than a few moments at a stretch. As Good As It Gets is therefore rather aptly named. For neither the story nor its characterizations go beyond the preliminary ‘feel good’.
Worse, the cast seems largely to be going through the motions of this antiseptic yuk-yuk. Carol is a waitress pulling double-duty at a trendy coffee house/bistro just to make ends meet; coping with a sick child, Spencer (Jesse James) and overbearing mother, Beverly (Shirley Knight); the wick of her temperament severely frayed from having burnt her candle at both ends. Melvin’s a reclusive writer who suffers from OCD and cannot abide humanity at large because, as imperfect variables in an equally imperfect world they screw with his desperate need to maintain supreme order. Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Jackie (Yeardley Smith) are fair-weather patrons of the arts, currently fixated on the ‘of the moment’ feasibility of hot commodity/gay artist, Simon Bishop. Assaulted by a pair of gay hustlers come to rob his place after posing as models, Simon is faced with a litany of medical expenses and the very real possibility that he cannot sustain his livelihood for a very long time.
So, how does it all play out? Well, Brooks might have done us the favor of reaching deeper into his liberalized social commentary for laughter and tears. As it stands, he gives us glib repartee, a few choice and very heated exchanges between Melvin and Carol; Carol and her mother; Melvin and Frank, and finally, Melvin and Simon. These exchanges do reach some sort of conflicted common ground as Melvin is forced by circumstance to grow into a better man in spite of himself and all three of the aforementioned suddenly come to the realization that they are interdependent upon each other to draw out their own clarity from the chaos of what each laughingly refers to as ‘his/her life’. How precious is that? I ask you. Of course, the real problem with As Good As It Gets is that it never aspires to give the audience something better than what its’ namesake advertises. Is it fun to watch Nicholson pretending to suffer from OCD, leaping about the pavement so as not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk, or shouting a flock of ebullient school children into silent because the decibel level in their joy is grating only to his ears? Debatable.
Truly humorous moments, as when Melvin is accosted by an overbearing receptionist – “You have no idea how much your work has meant to me. How do you write women so well?”, only to be chided by Melvin in rebuttal – “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability” are counterbalanced with truly vial diatribes that seem to spring more from Melvin’s bitterness toward life than from any knee-jerk reaction associated with his mental illness. As when he cuts Simon’s cleaning lady, Nora (Lupe Ontiveros) a new one after she suggests how he (Melvin) might ease Simon’s pain and suffrage: “Where do they teach you to talk like this?” Melvin condescendingly inquiries, “In some Panama City ‘Sailor wanna hump-hump’ bar, or is it getaway day and your last shot at his whiskey? Sell crazy someplace else. We're all stocked up here.”
Unfortunately, the Brooks/Andrus screenplay too readily relies on this latter ilk of scathing vitriol to elicit the laugh. Presumably, the more sadistic side of our collective funny bones is supposed to be tickled by these vial tongue lashings. It is one thing if the victim of the intended barb has been just as despicable towards our protagonist – either in the same scene or, even more ideally, in more than one preceding this moment of comeuppance, because then our protagonist’s rebuttal plays out as divine retribution and/or just desserts. But if no such moment has transpired, or worse, is even intonated as a possibility (ergo, the receiver of the verbal wound is undeserving of their smack down) then we are left with the moment as mere dialogue to be taken at face value; accepting it as thorough insult instead of mild amusement (as in a ‘Oh God, I can’t believe he said that’ type of moment) or becoming completely turned off by the character with whom we are expected to align ourselves.
It’s a shame too because, frankly, Melvin’s just a royal pain in the ass for long stretches at a time, making a fairly damn nuisance of himself to Carol, Simon, and, to the customers at Carol’s place of work while ever so slightly grating on the audience’s nerves as just another egotistical, over-the-hill, ill-advised suitor. Melvin’s sense of entitlement is superseded only by his utter lack of tact. On the whole, that’s a distinct hurdle for the movie to overcome. Why should we admire or even be able to relate to someone like this? Where’s the compassion factor and how does the audience channel into it for either its kernels of truth and/or passing chortles of rank amusement and diversion? Herein, it is to the credit of the Brooks/Andrus screenplay that it affords Carol her moments of reciprocated ire; giving as good as she gets, as it were.
“Come on in, and try not to ruin everything by being you,” Carol reluctantly tells Melvin after he discovers she has taken time off to care for Spencer. “Maybe we could live without the wisecracks,” he suggests, to which she coolly replies, “Maybe we could.” Or how about the moment even earlier in their burgeoning relationship when Carol asks, “Do you have any control over how creepy you allow yourself to get?” to which Melvin astutely replies, “Yes I do, as a matter of fact. And to prove it, I have not gotten personal, and you have.”
In essence, moments like these are the perfect setup for this unlikely couple; two halves of the same flawed equation; fractured people, barely existing in their unhappy lives apart, but who might just have one shot at something half-way more appealing if they pool their abject and isolationist miseries together. Apart, Melvin and Carol are very angry people – each expressing their personal outrage differently, but just as wounded on the inside. As a potential couple, Carol just might be able to bring out the unlikeliest humanities in Melvin, giving him the opportunity to discover a good reason to accept life for what it is - imperfect and complicated – without immediately breaking into a clammy sweat. In two of the movie’s best played scenes, we see this magnificent machinery at work; clever writing given a sudden infusion of vivacity and sincerity through performance.
In the first sequence, Melvin confides, rather genuinely in Carol that he has begun to harbor feelings for her. It’s a flawed confession at best, ending with pat on his back rather than an embrace. This marginally deflates the potency of the compliment. On the other hand, Carol still cannot see Melvin for his innate value beneath his traditionally gruff exterior, as he mutters: “I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you're the greatest woman on earth. I might be the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing that you do, and how you are with Spencer, and, in every single thought that you have, and how you say what you mean, and how you almost always mean something that's all about being straight and good. I think most people miss that about you, and I watch them, wondering how they can watch you bring their food, and clear their tables and never get that they just met the greatest woman alive. And the fact that I get it makes me feel good, about me.”
In the second – and penultimate – moment that will forever define their relationship – if, in fact, one is about to take hold after our story ends – Melvin takes Carol to a classy restaurant, but blunders his way from one insult to the next until Carol decides to leave for good; feeling depressed, but ultimately motivated enough to walk away – clean break/clean slate. Before this departure can occur, however, Melvin reaches deep within for what ultimately becomes As Good As It Get’s most heartfelt compliment …or, at least as genuine as Melvin can make it.
“Don't be pessimistic,” Melvin tells Carol, “It's not your style. Okay, here I go…clearly, a mistake. I've got this, what - ailment? My doctor, a shrink - he says that in fifty or sixty percent of the cases, a pill really helps. I hate pills, very dangerous thing, pills. Hate. I'm using the word ‘hate’ here about pills. Hate. My compliment is, that night when you came over and told me you would never... all right, well, you were there, you know what you said. Well, my compliment to you is, the next morning, I started taking the pills.” Understandably confused, Carol asks for clarity, to which Melvin admits, “You make me want to be a better man.” It’s a declaration fraught with unexpected gentleness and it sways Carol’s heart completely. The more miraculous tone, however, is struck from within the audience, who can suddenly find it in themselves to forgive Melvin all his previous indiscretions…well – most of them, at any rate.
Still, As Good As It Gets isn’t top tier James L. Brooks; chiefly because the middle third of his screenplay begins to waffle in too few realizations and too much wordy byplay simply for the sake of sounding clever. Brooks’ movies in general owe much to the likes of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) in that they are articulate, often lengthy deconstructions of severely flawed human interactions: people incongruously bumping into one another until either sparks of fitful romantic friction or all-out confrontations occur. But Brooks has dropped the ball mid-way through As Good As It Gets. His segue into Carol’s troubled private life away from the restaurant; saddled with a nattering mother - who wishes she and her daughter could be closer even as she drives her away with needling aspirations to see Carol settled with a handsome young man – is a distraction rather than a compliment to the main narrative; as is the brutal beating of Simon in his apartment by a pair of gay hustlers.
It bears brief mention that Greg Kinnear’s take on a single homosexual artist leaves something to be desired. Kinnear is an actor whose brief fame I never understood; just an average looking guy who got lucky in the movies, I guess. He’s competent in a Gig Young sort of acting style that is arguably easy on the eyes but somehow less thrilling in actual performance. While the beating and subsequent hospitalization effectively cripples Simon, both physically and emotionally until the unlikeliest friendship between he and Melvin is allowed to proliferate, it’s a rather complicated triumvirate with Carol thrown into the mix and Simon – out of necessity – being forced to go on a road trip with the pair to plead for some aid from his parents, then later, moving into Melvin’s apartment with Melvin’s reluctant, though ultimately sincere blessing.
The biggest problem with the story is that Brooks is enjoying these intimate moments too much to see that his bigger picture – or rather overall narrative arc – isn’t clicking as a whole. Instead of a smooth ascension of the romance between Melvin and Carol, and a parallel rise in the burgeoning friendship between Melvin and Simon, we have a clumsily stitched together hodgepodge of inserts ricocheting back and forth – from one plot point to the next, then back again. When the screenplay does bring together Nicholson, Kinnear and Hunt for a few brief scenes, their fictional counterparts have very little to say to one another. Brooks is far more competent when dealing with trouble and confrontation in pairs than in human triangles and As Good As it Gets suffers the slings and arrows of having this chronic third wheel foisted upon its storytelling – at intervals, either Carol or Simon, when it really isn’t necessary to move the story along. In the last analysis, As Good As it Gets lives up to its namesake. But it doesn’t press the audience to expect anything more and that’s a shame.
Evidently, Sony Home Entertainment has elected to lease As Good As It Gets directly to Twilight Time for a limited edition release on Blu-ray. Once again, Grover Crisp and his minions have given us a superior 1080p transfer of another catalogue title. This one really sparkles. Colors are robust. Flesh tones are very nice and fine detail pops as one might expect. We can see details in hair, fabric and, on occasion (and perhaps unintentionally) makeup applications. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence throughout this presentation. We get a competent 5.1 DTS audio too; not terribly enveloping but showcasing Hans Zimmer’s score to solid effect and with dialogue well represented. Extras are limited to an isolated DTS track of Zimmer’s score and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended for those who love this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)