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As Good As It Gets

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: As Good As It Gets

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt
Director: James L. Brooks
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genres: Comedy, Romance, Drama

*Also starring: Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Jesse James, Harold Ramis

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"It's not always good to let things calm down," advises Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) when his next-door neighbor Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) hesitates to pursue a romance. "As Good As It Gets" is a rare romantic comedy in which the audience does not have to worry: things never get too calm, particularly when its lead performer inhabits the role of an obsessive-compulsive misanthrope whom Moliere would probably write about if the great French playwright were alive today. James L. Brooks, who co-wrote the script and directed it with precise comic timing is, as critic David Thomson describes, "living proof that American television, week after week, can deliver smart, well-written, beautifully played comedy series that are devoted to being decent and humane without seeming smug or idiotic." With Jack Nicholson in his classic role as a highly-strung urbanite and Helen Hunt as Carol Connelly, the woman who makes a mensch out of him, "As Good As It Gets" is perhaps the year's smartest comedy. To Brooks's credit, the film's romantic theme even draws great moments of sympathy for its three principal characters, all of whom seem destined to have happiness forever elude them.

At one point in the tender and whimsical tale, Melvin pays a surprise visit to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Green (Lawrence Kasdan) and, looking with dismay at the sad sacks in the waiting room asks himself, "Is this as good as it gets?" Considering that the man is a highly successful writer of sixty- two novels living on a classy street in New York's Greenwich Village, we are at first surprised that life could appear to him prosaic, at best. But this film will assure those of us with very ordinary incomes that money and fame do not automatically guarantee happiness. Melvin Udall is the sort of guy who is really not out in the world, not the kind who would attend writers' conferences in the Hamptons or even know that there are certain rules that govern civilized speech. He seems either happy about his capacity to insult people with almost every comment he makes or completely unaware of his effect on humanity, all of whom are more likely than not to cross the street upon seeing him or hide from their waitress stations in restaurants when he approaches their tables. Luckily for Melvin, though, he has a soft spot for the only waitress he will allow to serve him, the only one, in fact, who will put up with his abuse--Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) who is in her late thirties and is troubled with a chronically asthmatic little boy who is often left in the care of Carol's mother, Beverly (Shirley Knight).

In what is easily his best role to date, Greg Kinnear shines as Melvin's gay next-door neighbor whose Brussels Griffon dog Verdell (Jill) is sent down the compactor chute by Melvin, who hates dogs as much as he dislikes people. Scripters James L. Brooks and Mark Andrus score points for irony in showing how the little dog, the love of Simon's life, actually shows a preference for Melvin's company--so much so that even when his owner holds up a strip of bacon and invites the dog to come, Verdell heads right for Melvin's arms.

Until the very conclusion of the film, Melvin seems completely unable to filter out his anti-social feelings before expressing them or, as some would say more appropriately, to engage the brain before putting the mouth into motion. When Simon is severely attacked and confined to a wheelchair by the jealous lover of a man (Skeet Ulrich) he is sketching, Melvin assures him "You'll be back on your knees in no time," and when a woman of Latin American background speaks to him with a flourish, he asks, "Where did you pick up that some Panama City hump-hump bar?" Despite his affection for Carol, while he spends an evening with her at a posh restaurant in which he is not admitted until he puts on a jacket and tie, he complains to her that they let her enter wearing just a housedress while he has to be inconvenienced by the establishment's dress code.

Brooks evokes a wonderful, Oscar-potential performance from Helen Hunt, an archetypal working-class woman who will remind TV viewers of Alice Kramden, as she juggles her life from her modest Prospect Park, Brooklyn apartment to her job as a server in a middle-class Manhattan restaurant. She leaves no question that she is eager for a hug and more but cannot find a normal guy to be her boy friend, which does not surprise her mother, who explains, "They don't exist." Fishing perpetually for compliments, even from the cynical Melvin, she is almost continually wide-eyed, waiting for him to complete his sentences, prompting him for the right words which seem never to arrive. Jack Nicholson's career is back on track after his indifferent job in "Mars Attacks." Nicholson is once again the paradigmatic New Yorker, the sort who does not suffer fools (or even wise folks) gladly--who swept the table clear in his famous scene with Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces." With the further support of Greg Kinnear, who turns in a surprisingly agile performance as a hard-luck guy who gets to know and even love the man who at first piqued him, "As Good As It Gets" is a convincingly upbeat and encouraging story of three unhappy and disparate people who find one another and realize that life can be agreeable.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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