Sunday, April 17, 2016

As Good as It Gets

As Good as It Gets; romantic tragicomedy, USA, 1997; D: James L. Brooks, S: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Skeet Ulrich, Yeardley Smith, Harold Ramis

New York. Melvin is a misanthrope and a hypochondriac, a hateful and exclusive cynic who ironically makes a living writing romantic novels. Everyone thus avoids him, but when his neighbor, gay painter Simon, is robbed and assaulted, Melvin softens up a bit when he takes care of his dog Verdell while Simon is recovering. Melvin also dines at a restaurant and is attracted to a waitress who works there, Carol. After finding a great doctor to treat her son, Carol figures Melvin is not that bad after all. Melvin, Carol and Simon travel to Baltimore to ask for some money from Simon's parents. After returning home, Melvin finally asks Carol out.

Whenever director and writer James L. Brooks would team up with Jack Nicholson, he would be on a lucky streak and deliver a bingo of a film. The same case is with their 3rd collaboration, "As Good as It Gets", where Brooks once again demonstrates his sixth sense for a gentle, melancholic comedy about humanity, a 'slice-of-life' piece without a story, but about people who are such refreshingly warm characters that you just simply enjoy their company, and their personalities alone carry the entire film. Somewhat unorthodox is that this time Brooks' main protagonist, Melvin, is a thoroughbred cynic, a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic misanthrope, to such a degree that people give an applause when he is thrown out of the restaurant, whereas in the opening act he even makes a remark about Simon's black gay lover ("Oh, you were talking about your dog. I thought it was the name of that colored man I've been seeing in the halls." - "...Which color was that...?" - "Uh... like thick molasses. With a broad nose, perfect for smelling trouble and prison food."), but since Jack Nicholson plays him so comically over-the-top, you simply cannot get mad at these exaggerations. However, some of Melvin's phobias are a tad too silly, such as his fear of stepping on a crack because it brings bad luck, which is unconvincing - Dr. House showed how it is done right, with the character being dysfunctional, but still not being far fetched.

The character of waitress Carol is lovely and unassuming, and it is obvious that Melvin is secretly in love with her without having to spell it out to the audience, based on his excuses that he just wants to eat at her table. Still, what is the point of the character of Simon? Or his trip to Baltimore which is never resolved? Strictly speaking, he is unnecessary in the storyline and feels like a fifth wheel, despite having good moments. Some more exploration of Melvin's character would have been welcomed: for instance, if he is such a hypochondriac, what was his last relationship like? How did that work out? And if he writes romance novels, wouldn't he use some of that to apply to Carol? That aspect was left unexplored. Also, the ending feels strangely vague and incomplete, which sadly starts exhausting the viewers good will. "As Good as It Gets" is thus a 'Pyrrhic victory': on one hand, it starts off with a bang, has excellent, wonderful characters and precious moments with emotions, but is overlong and feels aimless in the second half, whereas after Melvin's pointless remark to Carol that he expected her to "sleep with Simon" the film never truly recovers. Leaving that aside, it is a feast to simply have Brooks write some of his indestructible, beautiful dialogues, a talent only few have, come to full expression, here augmented by writer Mark Andrus: they are great, both when the lines are comical ("You are a disgrace to depression") and especially when they are cherished with emotions ("I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you're the greatest woman on earth."; the tender, inspiring moment at the restaurant when Carol puts Melvin in the corner and tries to persuade him to finally admit he loves her by saying: "It's OK... If you ask me, I'll say yes.").


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