As Good As It Gets
directed by James L. Brooks
(Tri-Star, 1997)

Long before he donned a football helmet and plopped himself down on the back of Peter Fonda's motorcycle, Jack Nicholson had established himself as Hollywood's resident crazy.

From the patient who pleads with the dentist to just drill a few holes in his teeth in the cult quickie Little Shop of Horrors to the wily McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson has played a long line of edgy icons, many of them well past the teetering point.

But the latest of these, Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets, offered the Oscar-winning actor a special challenge. For while he teetered precariously for 139 minutes, Nicholson had to hold down his side of one of Hollywood's oddest love quadrangles, which, in addition to himself, includes a single-mom waitress with an asthmatic son; a gay artist with a talent for being victimized; and a shaggy dog with an uncanny resemblance to Nicholson.

This would be difficult enough if Udall weren't a practicing homophobic, misogynistic, racist, anti-semitic, germ-fearing obsessive-compulsive. But he is, and the more he practices, the better he gets. He's also a successful romance novelist, though it's unlikely he's ever touched a woman unless he was wearing the plastic disposable gloves he takes with him just about everywhere, including the restaurant where Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) waits on him every day.

But from the first time Connelly casually touches him to get to her station, until their final breakup, we know that Melvin and Carol are made for each other, and As Good As It Gets -- a kind of Beauty & the Beast for the '90s -- is going to become a Romance Channel staple for years to come.

Filmmakers can surprise an audience in one of two ways: in what they do and in how they do it. Director James L. Brooks' film is an extended exercise in mode two: The setups are predictable; the responses are not.

"I'm drowning and you're describing the water," Udall yells at artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), who's just offered him some completely useless advice to the lovelorn.

More to the point is Udall's capsule summary of the three wounded souls on their road trip to Baltimore: "Some of us have great stories, pretty stories, that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car."

One thing As Good As It Gets is unclear on is what "It" refers to. I'd say it's the dialogue, or perhaps the chemistry between Hunt and Nicholson, or the performance by Kinnear as that rarest of figures from Hollywood -- a gay man who doesn't have AIDS.

Brooks' film hearkens back to a time when writers cared as much about what their characters said as about how well they blew up.

Granted, it's not always an easy film to watch. Udall is quick with the X-rated epithet, and Bishop takes one hell of a beating, physically and verbally. But if you can stand the funniest film repartee since Toy Story, the three-dimensional characters and the notion that Hunt could fall for Nicholson, then go for it.

You'd be crazy not to.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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