As Good As It Gets

(James L. Brooks, USA, 1997)


One needs to approach this film forewarned of at least one fact. For all the talk about what a heartwarming, joyous, hilarious movie it is – and all this is true – As Good As It Gets is, equally, a painful, almost sado-masochistic experience designed to make you squirm in your seat from start to end. Far from being a problem, this is the source of its true brilliance.

The film’s minimal, rambling plot is really only an excuse to hurl three remarkable characters together. Melvin (Jack Nicholson) is a solipsistic writer whose solitary daily life is maintained by an elaborate series of personal rituals. Not only does he suffer from an obsessive-compulsive disorder (continually checking door locks, washing his hands and avoiding cracks in the pavement); he is also a loudmouth racist and homophobe with a spluttering, acid wit. By any reckoning, Melvin is a complete mess.

Melvin’s gay neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear), a feted painter, finds the conditions of his life shattered when he is robbed and savagely beaten by a bunch of street punks. Melvin, to his horror, is forced firstly to look after Simon’s dog, and later Simon himself as he recuperates. Melvin’s only recourse is to drag Carol (Helen Hunt), a teary single mother, away from her job at the local diner, embroiling her in an odd, triangular friendship that is fraught in every imaginable way.

Writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment [1983], Broadcast News [1987]) plunges his cast – and his audience – into terrain that, in almost any other context, would be either relentlessly grim or severely tasteless. Why then is this film so euphoric, so liberating? It details a generous spread of neurotic, dysfunctional, damaged and depressed behaviour. What gives the movie its quality of generosity is its psychological fuzziness: for all intents and purposes, there is no difference here between a clinical condition, a formative childhood trauma, an unhappy accident or a dark, melancholic mood.

The great American director Nicholas Ray once advised his filmmaking students: "Heroes have to be just as screwed up as you or me so that I can identify with them." Taking this lesson to heart, Brooks melds the problems and palpitations of his three characters into one, composite casebook of miseries great and small. In its open invitation for everyone to identify, at some level or other, with this complex, it is a genuinely therapeutic, cathartic movie – something that is rare in popular cinema.

As Good As It Gets is, however, neither a preachy nor a simple film. It dances on eggshells, working and reworking a reduced set of interpersonal knots and misunderstandings with an often maddening insistence. Its procedural fuzziness lands it in some murky waters – sudden plot moves and miraculous character transformations that occasionally threaten to crack the precarious structure of the piece. Its characters – Melvin especially – border on being incoherent agglomerations of tics, drives and symptoms.

But even such problems and strains are a mark of how far out on a limb this movie goes. The three main actors dig deeper than comic performers are usually allowed to do. Nicholson, in the finest and most intricate role of his entire career, interrogates his repertoire of famous mannerisms – the smirk, the raised eyebrow, the cutting remark – and uncovers a deep well of troubled, irrational, defensive mechanisms. The spectacle of Melvin insulting Carol every time he means to woo her is unnerving – but equally, his moments of lucidity and generosity are overwhelmingly beautiful.

For all its star turns, conventional devices and bursts of old-fashioned wishful thinking, As Good As It Gets is almost unrecognisable as Hollywood entertainment. It is an original, adventurous film that bursts the bounds of its nominal genre – romantic comedy? – to find a unique shape, tone and subject. We don’t see many mainstream American films so daring – or so moving.

© Adrian Martin February 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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