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James L. Brooks has been delivering entertaining movies and TV shows for over 45 years now, as a writer, director and producer. His feature films as director include three big hits, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and a remarkably upbeat show from 1997, As Good as It Gets. It's the kind of movie that puts big smiles on people's faces and connects with audiences on a personal level. By the middle 1990s pictures that appealed to audience sentiments were getting rare; in most new movies one must peel back several layers of irony to find an honest observation about people. The sentimental revelations in As Good as It Gets aren't revolutionary, but they bring up a theme that comedies claim to address but rarely do: we're all interconnected and we all have problems in relating to the world. And people can help each other.
Far from being a practical guide to the real world, As Good as It Gets gives us a situation that initially sounds like an out-of-control TV sitcom. Successful romance novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a severely impaired obsessive-compulsive. Blindly abusive of other people, he has a terrible habit of unleashing vile verbal onslaughts at the slightest provocation, and at the least offensive targets. He's also a racist, an anti-Semite and a homophobe. He's so disconnected that he shoves his neighbor's dog down his apartment building's garbage chute.
Melvin's unpremeditated misanthropy is most strongly felt at his morning breakfast stop, where he cannot be happy unless his favorite waitress Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) serves him. Carol's life is a mess, as she cannot afford proper medical care for her asthmatic son, and she's too harried to enjoy a personal life of her own. Meanwhile, Melvin's artist neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) becomes the victim of a savage beating. His slow recovery is compounded by news from his manager Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.) that he's also flat-broke bankrupt. The incredibly insensitive Melvin begins to open up when he allows two radical changes to his near-psychotic routine: he takes in Simon's dog, and he helps out with Carol's son's medical problems. This comes as a shock to Carol, who fears that the outrageously unpredictable Melvin may demand some kind of physical relationship in return. Melvin's motivations turn out to be as frustratingly mysterious to him, as they are to his new friends.'
As Good as It Gets is proof that an exceedingly good movie can be made from elements that shouldn't fit together. James Brooks clearly did not have to submit this one to a committee. In one respect it's very much like an old studio product, where all the roles are custom tailored to the personalities of the stars. Jack Nicholson cruised through a goodly percentage of his mid-career films on automatic, flashing his devilish smile and other familiar schtick, with a few sharp line readings thrown in. Melvin Udall's nasty remarks to his gay neighbor and a pair of Jewish cafe patrons are almost unforgiveable -- attitudes like that don't get 'cured' by a mere change of heart. Yet Nicholson pulls it off by convincing us that Udall is an unusually interesting monster, a guy so mal-socialized that he repels nice people as if he were made of anti-matter.
And it's a great script. The characters have serious problems without being limited by them. Carol needs romance so badly that she thinks her hot-to-trot Friday night date won't mind having a sick child and a nosy mother (Shirley Knight) in the next room while they make love. Simon is such a trusting fellow that he falls victim to the cohorts of the street hustler (Skeet Ulrich) that he invites in as an impromptu artist's model. The dialogue is natural and unforced and free of easy comedy lines. Melvin Udall thinks that he's tossing out comedy zingers, but they're all really hateful statements. He can't tell the difference, actually. Like someone with Tourette Syndrome, he blurts out hurtful lines and then struggles to understand what he's done wrong.
As with Brooks' other films the casting is superb. Jack Nicholson is actually trying this time out. He turns in a much more interesting performance than his amusing, but 'easy', astronaut in Terms of Endearment. When Melvin Udall speaks, we expect to cringe. Melvin ignores his doctor's orders to take pills that would even out his worst mood swings. This aspect of his character (something of a fantasy character, perhaps) isn't emphasized, allowing us to think that Udall is basically a rotten SOB badly in need of chastisement and redemption.
Those of us who weren't watching television in 1997 kept our eyes peeled at the credits crawl to learn the names of the other players. Helen Hunt is perhaps the most felicitously cast actress of the decade. Carol Connelly fits her like a glove and her every scene is a keeper. Carol the tolerant waitress is patient and understanding but also no pushover -- when she blows up she really gives Melvin a piece of her mind. She's the doting mother without begging for sympathy. Anybody can relate to her Carol's reaction when Melvin's "surprise doctor" (Harold Ramis) shows up to sort out her son's allergy problems. Both Nicholson and Ms. Hunt took home Best Actor Oscars, which only seems proper.
Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr. were both around and fairly busy before As Good as It Gets but it seems safe to say that the show put them on the map. (Gooding really arrived, I suppose, in the previous year's Jerry Maguire.) Kinnear's Simon will come off as a 'safe' gay character to more activist critics, as his sexual dimension is not part of the on-screen dynamic. Although this appeal to bourgeois values may seem a commercial dodge, the 'soft' gay character Simon is surely good P.R. for the alternative cause. It's also interesting in this regard that the film's most erotic scene is used to demonstrate Simon's commitment to art. He becomes 'excited' by the beauty of Carol preparing a bath. The film avoids making a big statement about gay men and straight women, or sexual preference. Or maybe it does -- people can become instant and affectionate friends without sex being necessary. Surely 20,000 actresses and wanna-be actresses saw Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets and cried to think that they'll get a once-in-a-lifetime role like that.
As Good as It Gets eventually brings its characters in conflict with that standby device, the Road Trip. It leaves things ragged but hopeful, with Melvin starting a personal therapy to crawl out of his neurotic dead end of a life (you know, the one where you're also a famous and wealthy author). He's taking some bold moves in his effort not to blow his chances with Carol -- going so far as to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Audiences left As Good as It Gets feeling light on their feet, the sure mark of a superior entertainment. But it's also possible that viewers simply appreciated a show that respects a range of human feelings. Movies like this shouldn't be missed.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of As Good as It Gets sees the company licensing not a vintage Columbia/Sony title but a multiple Oscar winner just fifteen years old. The HD transfer and encoding by Sony's restoration department are exemplary; I have an older DVD of the show and the improved detail here makes a big difference in wide shots. Also, those great character close-ups flatter the actors. Helen Hunt's eyes catch more light. The makeup on Greg Kinnear can be seen to slowly heal through successive scenes.
Twilight Time has come up with its expected Isolated Score Track. Hans Zimmer's main theme keeps threatening to become a famous melody from the past, but I can't make the exact association. A trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
As Good as It Gets Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.