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With: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Yeardley Smith, Skeet Ulrich, Julie Benz
Written by: James L. Brooks, Mark Andrus
Directed by: James L. Brooks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for strong language, thematic elements, nudity and a beating
Running Time: 139
Date: 19/12/1997

As Good as It Gets (1997)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Better Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy As Good as It Gets on DVD.

In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a New York writer unconcerned with offending anyone with his vulgar behavior. Sometimes Woody pulls it off and other times he just seems small. In As Good as It Gets, the new film by James L. Brooks, Jack Nicholson plays the same type of character, but when Jack does it, it sparkles.

As Melvin Udall, this is Jack at his best, the kind of role that makes him a star. He gets to bear his teeth, take control of a room, and be devilishly cuddly at the same time. He deliciously delivers the most unconventionally rude dialogue in years. It's a role not unlike his Daryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick or his R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Melvin's excuse for his behavior is that he's diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive. He walks around New York not stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk. He wears gloves for everything. He washes his hands and throws away the soap. He eats at the same restaurant every day at the same time with the same waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt). He is generally perceived as a grinch, but in As Good as It Gets, certain circumstances happen that cause Melvin to perform good deeds. His gay artist neighbor, played by Greg Kinnear (that cable TV show host turned talented actor) gets attacked by a band of thugs that he thinks are models. He has to go to the hospital and Melvin ends up watching the little mop dog that he pretends to hate, but soon comes to love. At the same time, Carol has a chronically asthmatic son who must be rushed off to the hospital several times a month, upsetting Melvin's eating schedule. So, Melvin sends a top-notch doctor (Harold Ramis) to their house so that Carol can come back to work and feed him.

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Kinnear's friend and dealer, who talks Melvin into taking a road trip to Kinnear's parents' house to ask them for money for his hospital bills. Melvin asks Carol to come along. What happens on the trip is pretty great and nearly unpredictable. Hunt is an amazing actress, as she has proven on her TV series Mad About You. She is a great comedienne who can slip into drama effortlessly. Gooding is as charming as ever, but his role is very small. Nicholson, Hunt and Kinnear will almost certainly be awarded with Oscar nominations, and they are deserved.

This is a very smart script by Mark Andrus (who also wrote the story) and Brooks. Just that fact that Melvin's rude dialogue sounds natural, chronic, offensive and funny at the same time is a major feat. And that the story works so well on top of it. Where there could have been a lot of phony schlock, there's a well balanced story and great characters. Brooks as a director knows how to get great performances out of his actors, and keep the pace going. The movie is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, but it feels like a scant 90 or 100 minutes. It never slows down or gets old. His vision of New York is a little too clean, especially for the neat-freak Melvin. It would have been funny to see Melvin try and survive in a grimy Martin Scorsese New York, rather than a clean L.A. set-bound New York. But this is a small gripe. As Good as It Gets is a very enjoyable, very funny, very charming movie, and I was able to lose myself in it.

Note: This review was originally published in SF MODA magazine.

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