AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) ***1/4. Directed by James L. Brooks. Written by Brooks and Mark Andrus from a story by Andrus. Photography, John Bailey. Editing, Richard Marks. Production design, Bill Brzeski. Produced by James L. Brooks, Kristi Zea and Bridget Johnson. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, et al. A TriStar release. 132 minutes. PG-13.
"As Good" also stars Jack Nicholson, in top para-Satanic and aggressive form, circumflex eyebrows, hooded eyes ranking with the best (Victor Mature's, Bob Mitchum's), incongruous tan for a New Yorker (but no one yet has ever been able to challenge the deep bronzing of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr) and his bag of eccentricities at an apex.
The movie has both originality and well-crafted, deja-filmed mainstream appeal. Peripherally, it is a distant variant on Beauty and the Beast, the Taming of the Shrew (with sexes reversed). Centrally, it is a showcase for the talents of Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
Melvin Udall (Nicholson) is a misanthropic, bilious, hypochondriac, reclusive mega-nut. His manias include always washing with a fresh cake of soap; walking to the same restaurant daily at 11 am for a giga-cholesterol breakfast at "his" table served by "his" waitress; bringing his own plastic knives and forks; wearing disposable surgical gloves; avoiding brushing against people or stepping on sidewalk cracks. All of this, plus more quirks, is apparently explained by his suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
That's bad enough, but Melvin is a pain in every other way too. He's a champion people-insulter and, among other lovely traits, homophobic, African-American-fearing, and a Jew-and-everybody-else Equal Opportunity hater. This includes animals. The action begins with Mel (who probably hates his parents for his name) throwing his neighbor's beloved pooch Verdell down the laundry chute.
The neighbor, Simon (Kinnear) is a successful painter, whose art dealer friend is a classy African-American the named with originality Frank Sachs (Gooding). Both are gay, but not that you could tell. The other major "dramatis persona" is Carol (Hunt), Mel's habitual, suffering, and only acceptable waitress at the restaurant. She is a single mother with a dangerously asthmatic boy, lives with him her mother (Knight) in far-off Brooklyn, trudging to and fro exhausted by her waitressing and her motherly duties.
When Simon is brutally beaten up by invading, thieving street hoods, and taken to the hospital, Frank sticks Mel with the dog in a way that Mel cannot refuse. Predictably, grudgingly (and unconvincingly), the writer and the canine fall for each other. Did I say "writer"? Yes, that's what Mel does for a living, composing romances for female readership and making lots of money from his 62 or so purple-prose novels. The contrast between his profession and his character is absurd, rates an F for credibility. Mel explains his knowing portrayals of women by :"I think of a man, then I take away reason and accountability." This adds gynecophobia to the list, makes us think of Mel as a virgin (??!!) and simply won't wash.
Upon his return from the hospital, Simon finds himself broke: he has no health insurance (a real tragedy for so many self-employed), his medical bill is over $60,000, his art has been vandalized, his will to paint has vanished, he is losing his apartment. But look what animal companionship can do for people! Increasingly human and humane Mel comes to the rescue. And by some intricate plot devices, he also delivers Carol and her son from the evil of uncaring doctors and medical bills. It's artificial plotting but while you are watching it, it is also warm, lovely and well-acted. All the while, of course, Mel is falling for Carol. But the New Mel dies hard. When he introduces his friends to one another he says:" Carol the waitress. Simon the fag." I'll stop here.
NIcholson, in spite of his improbable role, is Nicholson, meaning as good as ever, even better perhaps. No surprise here. The real revelation is Helen Hunt. I have never cared much for her flimsy, parts in TV's "Mad About You," and while she has many more credits, too many of them were in unmemorable productions. She was finally top-listed in her previous film "Twister" (1996), but her role was pallid.
Now finally Helen Hunt has come into her own. Without bravura or pointedly dramatic or humorous scenes and repartees, without prettifying makeup or sexy clothes, without scene-stealing episodes, Hunt does steal the whole movie. In one of the most amazing transformations in recent cinema, she makes palpable her struggle with life and conditions, her exhaustion as waitress, caring mom, commuter and debtor in splendidly veristic ways.
We learn nothing about the father of her child, or for that matter about the earlier Carol, yet she is three-dimensional both in her sadness, depression, lack of men in her life as well as in her moments of humor and happiness. Cannily, the script adds rounding off Carol through a funny-turning-unfunny interlude with a lover who vanishes.
Aged beyond her 34 years , not especially pretty by ordinary standards, she is enormously likable, appealing, real and, yes, even sexy. She also strikes very believably at HMOs and the medical profession, though the "deus ex machina" introduction of a wise, wonderful doctor restores some balance. Yet, what with Simon's lack of insurance, a strong case is made against our health system.
Multiple Oscar-winning writer-director-producer Brooks had previously directed "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News" and the notorious "I'll Do Anything," which, filmed as a musical, failed in previews and had to come out as a non-musical. Even so, the latter is my favorite Brooks movie, partly because of its superb direction of actors. Now Brooks repeats his tour-de-force with Helen Hunt. No matter how iffy the tale, the performances make it a winner.