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'As Good as It Gets': Saving the Worst for Last

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 1997

  Recommended


As Good as It Gets Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt have an interesting relationship in "As Good as It Gets." (TriStar)

Director:
James L. Brooks
Cast:
Jack Nicholson;
Helen Hunt;
Greg Kinnear;
Cuba Gooding Jr.;
Skeet Ulrich
Running Time:
2 hours, 15 minutes
PG-13
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent
Oscars:
Best Actor; Best Actress


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In James L. Brooks's initially fabulous comedy "As Good as It Gets," Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) may be the nastiest man in New York City – which is saying something.

A successful romance novelist diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he lives alone with his manuscripts, his piano and the most misanthropic world view since W.C. Fields.

When he ventures out of his Greenwich Village apartment, he avoids cracks on the sidewalk, carries plastic utensils to his favorite restaurant, and is openly hostile to creatures great and small. There's a special glint in his eye as he savors the mortified expressions of the people he insults.

"I've got Jews at my table," he loudly informs his waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), as he breezes into a Manhattan cafe for his daily 11 o'clock breakfast. He then hangs around the unfortunate customers like a thunderhead until they leave.

When Verdell, his gay neighbor's lap-size dog from across the hall, wets the rug once too often, Melvin picks up the offending pooch and slam-dunks him down the trash chute.

"This is New York," he yells through the hatch, as Verdell goes thump! thump! thump! all the way down. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Verdell is unhurt. But in Brooks's somewhat overextended comedy, Melvin will undergo some house training of his own. It starts when Verdell's owner, Simon (Greg Kinnear), gets attacked by street hustlers, leaving Melvin to look after the dog. For Melvin, who reserves a special contempt for Verdell, not to mention Simon and his kind, this is an indignity of the highest order.

"Where's the trust?" he demands petulantly, as Verdell looks askance at the bacon bits Melvin has added to his dog food.

Melvin's moral make-over continues when waitress Carol takes time off to watch her ailing son (Jesse James). His routine-dependent life now completely out of whack, Melvin takes charge in his special, sensitive way. He bursts into Carol's apartment and demands she return to work.

Let's see: Melvin is an obsessive-compulsive SOB, Simon's recovering from a severe beating, and Carol's son could die from asthma at any moment. And this is a comedy? For Brooks, who gave us "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News," life is only parenthetically about suffering. What matters to him – and what usually entertains us – is the way his characters complain, behave and verbalize as they undergo this lifelong misery at work, in the family, or in their fractured relationships.

With a career shaped and perfected in television (his impressive resume includes "Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant"), Brooks, who co-wrote and directed this movie, has a gift for making life continue infinitely in entertaining episodes. You could almost dine on the marvelous utterances that fill his movies.

"Don't diagnose me with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and then act as if I had some choice about barging in," Melvin tells his horrified psychiatrist after an unscheduled visit.

Brooks is helped immeasurably by his performers. No one plays the beast cuter than Nicholson. As he did in "Batman" and "The Witches of Eastwick," he turns nastiness into some kind of malignant charm. Hunt, the star of TV's "Mad About You," is coming into her magnificent own; she plays fabulously off Nicholson.

Unfortunately, this 125-minute movie – which should have been called "As Long as It Gets" – doesn't resolve itself so much as keep cutting to the commercials.

The episodes are wonderful for a while, and a great, contentious relationship is established between Nicholson and Hunt. But the movie loses all momentum with the ending at least 40 minutes away. Even worse, it gets bogged down in sentimentality, while its wheels spin futilely in life-solving overdrive. When the recovering Simon, whose beating has caused him to lose confidence in his painting, begins to draw pictures of people in real life, Brooks might as well drape a banner that says LIFE AFFIRMATION TIME across the screen. By this time, we have gone from one of the season's most promising comedies to one of its most groan-inducing.

   

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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