Review: As Good as it Gets (1997)

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.

Rating: A-

6 thoughts on “Review: As Good as it Gets (1997)

  1. I remember watching this at the local village theatre. I was fifteen at the time and probably the only member of the audience below the age of forty. It was the middle of winter and the locale was cold, some of us still wore our winter jackets while watching the film.

    Your criticisms of the film, especially of the relationship between Nicholson and Hunt, are valid. I’d argue that much of the film is a set of contrivances one needs to ignore to enjoy the film. Brooks’ films are charming and clever but built on saccharine artifice, probably to mask all the emotionality and conflict he broils up within the characters. Makes it easier to swallow, I’m guessing. A bit like wrapping barbed wire in cotton candy.

    I think one of the reasons for why it works is that each character could work as the lead in a low-budget indie drama on their own.

    But I still cringe when thinking of Kinnear’s “You’re why cavemen chiseled on walls.” Blech.

  2. It’s the movie that made my parents realize I had OCD.

    Nicholson’s cabinet FULL of soap was cool, but if it’s not antibacterial, what’s the point? Which begs the question – was soap just for the smell before it was anti-bacterial?

    I forget if I watched it on a plane or TV or what, but I kind of zoned out during the middle section focusing on Kinnear.

    I’d say it was a very well-made B.

  3. Juan:
    Anti-bacterial is a corporate term to make soap stop being soap and make you think you need to spend more money on something new.
    Anti-bacterial is creating ‘super-bugs’ that just make you sicker and make it more difficult to keep clean, therefore, you will become even more beholden to medicine and pills.
    Soap was once lye and later, tallow, I believe, two things that humans found can clean the human body very well, and that continue to clean the human body very well…nothing wrong with good old soap, my friend…nothing at all.

  4. I believe it worked so well because so many middle-agers could so easily relate to Jack Nicholson’s character, the type of character that hadn’t been seen very much in mainstream cinema.

    I loved this movie, if only because it brought me and my stepfather closer.

    And there are two things why I love movies so much. It helped Juan’s parents better understand something about him and it helped me bond with my stepfather. There is nothing greater than the art form of movies. Nothing.

  5. I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen–I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones who look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline of good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of The Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies too. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.

    – From American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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