As Good As It Gets... well, it certainly isn't that!
As Good As It Gets
Seeing Jack Nicholson makes me want to run for my life. I don't know if everyone feels this way, but I have a problem with him. It's not that I don't like him as an actor, but his physical appearance just makes me think of him as an evil man. I mean, he has given us some of the most evil villains ever to appear in film. I can see him as The Joker from Batman; I can see him as The Devil from The Witches of Eastwick; I can see him as a wolf in Wolf; and I can especially see him as a normal human being, who becomes psychotic from isolation in The Shining. But no matter how hard I try, I can never picture him playing a normal, average person.
However, Nicholson has proven himself a gifted actor, who can suddenly change from evil to nice. There's his nice persona in Mars Attacks! as the President of the United States. I believed him in that role. So I assume that I am a little prejudiced against him. I like him as an actor, but I think his choice of roles are limited due to prejudice and typecasting. Then again, when I think about it, he never really plays normal people. Perhaps his closest, most humane role was in The Crossing Guard. But watching that film, I didn't think he was nearly as effective as he was playing villains. So this brings us to As Good As It Gets, a new romantic comedy starring Nicholson, as our anti-hero. Unfortunately, I think the biggest problem with the film is Nicholson. I'm not saying that in a really bad way. When I watch Nicholson portraying Melvin Udall, the main character in As Good As It Gets, I want to like him. Does this paradox work? I mean, I don't like him, but in this film, I want to.
I assume that from the beginning, we are not supposed to like Melvin at all. But the movie is a romantic dark comedy, and as a result, I began to like everything Melvin did to other people. Melvin is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which explains his rather rude mannerisms. However, by giving him this disorder, instead of hating him, we pity him and begin to care for him. This doesn't explain for his overall bad personality: he is a homophobic, racist and a hater of animals and, well, people in general. Yet, surprisingly, everything Melvin does isn't mean-spirited at all--it's humorous. Perhaps this wasn't the way the film should have gone, but headed more towards romantic drama. The film never really finds its tone, and it suffers as a result.
The film is mainly a retelling of the classic A Christmas Carol as a comedy. Instead of ghosts that visit Scrooge, it is four people (one being a dog). There's Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a working mother of a sick son who has a serious asthma problem. Carol works at a restaurant frequently attended by Melvin, who can never step on the cracks of a sidewalk or sit in a different booth in the restaurant. Carol puts up with Melvin's rantings and ravings because he is a customer. However, situations arise that permit Melvin to become closer to Carol. A romantic flare begins, but due to some rather cheap melodrama and poor chemistry between the two leads, this flare is snuffed out. Instead, it is replaced by a rude exchange of one-liners and bad remarks. Not until the end of the film did I even remotely think something romantic was going to come out of it.
A better subplot involves a gay artist, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), who hates Melvin for shoving his dog down a garbage chute. At first hating Simon, Melvin becomes the tender of the dog when Simon is attacked by three robbers (two of them played by Scream stars Jamie Kennedy and Skeet Ulrich). Simon is bruised and broken, leaving his face mangled and one arm in a cast. With the increasing medical bills, Simon is unable to pay his rent and he is evicted. Meanwhile, Melvin has taken a liking to the dog, who has begun to mimic Melvin (he doesn't step on cracks either). The dog brings Simon and Melvin together, and in order for Simon to get enough money to pay for the apartment, Melvin accepts, grudgingly, to take him to his parents' house to beg for money. Melvin doesn't want to go alone with Simon, so he asks Carol to come along. Carol also accepts due to Melvin's kind gesture towards her son.
This is the moment the film turns from mildly funny to hilarious, but at the same time, it turns into a sappy romance story. Prior to this point, the film has some funny moments, but it also has humor which falls flat... and very often. After, most of the humor hits the perfect note and comes across as very funny. Unfortunately, the romance takes a wrong turn, as Melvin and Carol begin to fall in love. The chemistry between the two has never been present, always fading in and out. There is never a strong connection between the two actors, and the romance is never believable. In fact, there is a stronger connection between Kinnear and Nicholson than Hunt. Then again, that probably would have been a more interesting twist in the plot had Nicholson fallen for Kinnear, or Kinnear for Hunt. Let's face it, Hunt and Nicholson don't click together like they should.
If it weren't for the cast, this film would have flopped big time. But, unfortunately, only one of them is up to par. Greg Kinnear steals all the scenes with his terrific portrayal of Simon, the gay artist. Receiving an Oscar-nomination for it (and humorously the only one NOT to get it), Kinnear shows a character with many levels that normally wouldn't work in this type of film. Helen Hunt is just awful in a role that we have seen her play several times before. Think about it... this is the characters from Mad About You, Twister, and other films she's done. This repetition is growing old, and if she doesn't find something else to do, she may find herself grasping for roles. Her Oscar win was a slap in the face at foreign countries when the four British actresses lost (and yet, all were better performances). Hunt is possibly the most overrated actress. Her only good role? Mad About You where she originated it. As for Jack Nicholson, you gotta like him. But he just isn't given a good character. Instead, it's as if the writers just added a mean-spirited character, and then put Nicholson in. It doesn't work because we automatically like Nicholson no matter what. His inevitable change to being kind is so predictable that it's pointless to watch. And running over two hours, it's just way too long.
Director James L. Brooks has created a mediocre and uneven romantic comedy. The direction is solid, but the screenplay needed a lot of work. Written by Mark Andrus and Brooks, the dialogue is usually smart (though usually bordering on sappy), but the plot needed a little retuning, as you can pretty much guess the ending of the film early on. There are moments that the film seems to try for too much at the same time. Many dramatic scenes come across as dull, and some humor never reaches its fullest impact due to comic timing. And if that wasn't enough, the characters just seem as flat as a board. The writers took normal, original characters, toned them down, and then tried to convince audiences that they were original by adding other elements, such as being gay or obsessive-compulsive. In the final third of the film, the three get together, and the chemistry begins to pick up. But that's when the screenplay let's them down. It's just quite sad. A film with a lot of potential was wasted.
As Good As It Gets is rated PG-13, and a very harsh one it is. It has a fair amount of harsh language, thematic elements, some nudity, and a scene of violence. The film was originally rated R, but then due to the appeal it has towards a certain age group, it was re-rated to PG-13. The first rating was correct, with several uses of the f-word (over two, a film is required to be rated R, no matter what). As Good As It Gets doesn't live up to its promises with its suggestive title, but you can't have a Titanic everytime. This is by far the most overrated film of 1997.
** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie