As Good As It Gets

As Good As It Gets

***

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Light comedies tend to have stupid titles like this and storylines that stretch credulity into weird shapes. Not that reality has anything to do with it: playing with improbables is the thing.

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) writes popular romantic fiction, despite being a seriously screwed up guy. Basically he hates people, eats with plastic cutlery because of his phobia of germs, freaks if anyone touches him and opens a fresh packet of soap whenever he washes his hands. He won't walk on the cracks and has a habit of saying exactly what he thinks. Since he's a bigotted, self-centred, homophobic racist, with sexist tendencies, his comments are character bombs.

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Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) is a single mum with an asthmatic son and a supportive mother who baby-sits. Unlike Udall, she's a nice person who worries too much and works at the neighborhood cafe where Frank brunches every day. They don't exactly communicate. He complains, she retorts. He's rude, she tells him off. When she doesn't come in one morning because her son is sick, he can't cope. Being served by what he calls "the elephant girl" (teenage supply waitress) is not acceptable. He goes off in search for her.

Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) is a gay artist who lives in the apartment across the hall. He has a dog called Verdell, whom he adores. Verdell resembles Animal from The Muppet Show, except she's smaller and doesn't play the drums. Udall hates Verdell - dogs are messy and deserve to be dumped down laundry shoots - almost as much as he hates homosexuals. Bating the sensitive Simon becomes part of Frank's day, but not intentionally, it just happens. Simon is such a wuss, he's easy.

This is James L Brooks' quartet - an obsessive compulsive author, a stressed out waitress, an emotionally delicate painter and an intelligent wee dog. It feels like the pilot for a sitcom and might well have been, but for the star performances. Also, the length is excessive for TV. It's excessive for cinema, too.

Nicholson gathers his bag of tricks and succeeds in making a terrible man endearing. He loves to dig his teeth into show-off roles like this and does so with relish. Hunt is a wonder. She brings genuine feeling to a character who might have been Meg Ryan. Kinnear avoids Nathan Lane's approach to The Camp Follower's Guide and plays against cliche. Like the others, he finds humanity where comic business thrives. Even Jill (Verdell) has charm, which is an achievement when you see what she looks like.

Udall is a depository for snappy put-downs ("You're a disgrace to depression") and the scriptwriters love it. When asked by a panting groupie how he understands women so well in his books, Frank growls, "I think of a man and take away reason and accountability." If it wasn't for Nicholson, this might be offensive. He makes the difference between loathing Udall and rather liking him.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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An unlikely relationship between a obssessive compulsive, his gay neighbour and a waitress.
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Director: James L Brooks

Writer: Mark Andrus, James L Brooks

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Harold Ramis

Year: 1997

Runtime: 139 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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