Watching ‘As Good as It Gets’ for the first time since I saw it at the cinemas almost 13 years ago, what struck me was – notwithstanding the quality acting/directing pedigree it had – how unlikely a blockbuster it was. It had none of the hooks that are considered necessary today (sex, action, appealing to teenage market, based on famous book or comic character, etc..) to be a major box-office smash. Indeed, a 140 minute ‘dramedy’ entirely reliant on character interaction with not even much of a plot seemed the anti-blockbuster.
And yet not only did it turn into a critical and award-winning triumph, but it was one of the half-dozen most popular films of 1997 in America. What was the secret of its success?
The plot centres around three characters. Firstly, there’s Melvin (Jack Nicholson), an acclaimed novelist who has virtually no friends due to an obsessive-compulsive disorder and his serverly obnoxious personality. Then there’s Carol, a waitress (Helen Hunt) who serves Melvin (and the only person Melvin seems to care for) at a local diner who is struggling with the demands of being a single mother with a sick son. Finally there is Melvin’s gay artist neighbour Simon who is struggling to deal with being brutally attacked in his home and having his whole future jeopardised. Over the course of the film their lives increasingly intermesh and lead to surprising and not always pleasant developments for them.
It’s quite amazing that AGAIG works as well as it does because the central plotline of the film – the romance between Melvin and Carol – doesn’t really work. Mainly because there are too many years difference (26) between Hunt and Nicholson to overcome (in fact Nicholson is only a few months younger than Shirley Knight, who plays Hunt’s mother in the movie). When you factor in issues with the socio-economic differences and personality clashes between the two characters that are never quite fully addressed, the romance never convinces.
And yet despite this major problem the film works marvellously well overall which is a tribute to the skills of director/co-writer James L. Brooks. Scenes that would come across as corny or phony in the hands of many others (e.g. Melvin’s final speech to Carol) hit the bullseye here because of the quality of the writing and the deft development of characterisation.
This all comes down the fact that Brooks has the confidence in his ability to maintain interest in the development and fate of his characters and is prepared to let them develop and grow naturally (as naturally as can be done within the confines of a mainstream Hollywood film) instead of going for conventional easy options. 140 minutes seems like an excessive length for this type of film but thanks to the skill of Brooks and his cast, it doesn’t feel a minute overlong.
The most impressive characterisation in the film is Carol. Particularly because instead of taking the easy option of making her an affable and lovable counterpoint to Melvin, Brooks and Hunt have the courage to make her a brittle, often nasty character. In fact she’s probably more callous to Melvin than he is to her. As a characterisation it rings true as someone who has been downtrodden by failed relationships, the difficulties of scraping by and caring for her sick son – she’s gone through too much to be tolerate Melvin’s excesses. It makes her unlikable on occasion but it also makes her a much more richer characterisation.
In his breakthrough role, Greg Kinnear is also impressive as Simon. He avoids portraying Simon with stereotyped gay mannerisms and goes for more subtle ways in expressing his characters persona. Especially effective is his behaviour in his relationship with Melvin as we see him slowly transform from loathing, to intimidation to accommodation towards Melvin. This is illustrated towards the end when Simon has the confidence to mock and needle him, which Kinnear does very amusingly. Kinnear’s always been an underrated actor imo, and this is one of his best performances.
Perhaps surprisingly, Nicholson’s Melvin is the weak link in the trio. This is partly because his character seems the most contrived of the three – he dishes out horrible insults regularly but they’re treated comically (and many are quite amusing) so as to make his inevitable character makeover during the course of the film more palatable. As well, the way he overcomes his OCD seems too easy. Also, I didn’t think this is one of Nicholson’s top performances. While he’s entertaining and compelling, he seems to coast a bit on his persona and doesn’t create as fully-rounded a characterisation as he could’ve. That he won the Oscar for this is another case of a great actor winning the award for one of his lesser performances.
Despite a fairly weak central romance and some minor contrivances, this is overall an excellent film and one of the best examples of mainstream Hollywood comedy/drama in the last 15 years.