time and time again, readjust our preconceived notions about whom he’ll be playing this time around. He’s played nice and gotten away with it before. He’s played villainous and has been sensational. There is no set Nicholson “type.”
If his prolific filmography’s proven anything, it’s that his screen personality’s elastic, impervious to even the most unbelievable instances of character development. With As Good As It Gets, he’s provided with one of his juiciest, difficult roles: here, he portrays a dickish curmudgeon whom we must first hate and then love, who must first appear a jerk of a loner and then a softy of a friend and lover. An actor without his authenticity’d find limited success — we’d likely never get past the film’s first 15 minutes, when insults are hurled and feelings have been hurt by this dark spot of a man.
But Nicholson gets us to the destination on which the film’s co-writer and director, James L. Brooks, wants us to land. With As Good As It Gets, Brooks seeks to redefine the classic Scrooge story, determined to show that a man as seemingly ineffective at loving as his central Udall can unfreeze his heart. But what we get in return is a contrived reduction of a hit sitcom, with all the characters too broadly characterized and all the situations overt mechanisms to get us to the happy ending we can see coming from the moment we see Nicholson rest his eyes on a lady (played by Helen Hunt) who challenges him. It’s not exactly the subversive rom-com it intends to be; it’s forced and sometimes unbelievable, and that’s arguably worse than being formulaic.
But Nicholson, along with the actors supporting him, is so good that the uneven material being worked with is elevated. Even when we’re having a hard time buying most of the motivations of these characters — or the situations in which they’re placed — we’re still moved by the performances bringing them to life. By the way these actors manage to find the emotional centers of individuals more sketches than shaded colors atop a cotton canvas.
In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson’s Udall acts as the nucleus. He’s defined as an obsessive-compulsive misanthropist whose inability to do much more besides hate is an effect of his refusal to take his medication. For years, we presume, he’s practically slept through the same daily routine: walk (without stepping on sidewalk cracks, of course) to his favorite restaurant, then spend the rest of the day writing (he’s a best-selling novelist who is, ironically, known for his multidimensional female heroines).
That’d be harmless if Udall didn’t go out of his way to voice his contempt for the general populace. But he seems to delight in hurting others. He terrorizes his neighbors on the daily — Udall’s particularly cruel to his gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear) — and makes sure to test the patience of the only waitress who’s brave enough to serve him, Carol (Helen Hunt). He’s a shameless brat.
But Brooks wants to prove that he actually has a heart of gold. All this misanthropy, he essentially says, is really just covering a kind of vulnerability and loneliness that’s been inflamed by working at home with minimal social interaction. So little by little do we see the poison-dipped edges of Udall’s personality dry up. The first part of his redemption story arrives when he’s forced to take care of Simon’s dog after the latter (a painter) is violently assaulted by one of his models. Then he discovers that Carol, on whom he has a subtle crush, has a son at home suffering from untreated asthma, and decides to pay for the boy’s medical bills. Suddenly those who’ve billed him a creep start thinking that maybe Udall’s not so bad after all — and so begins the latter’s metamorphosis from gremlin to mogwai.
All comes to a head when the script unconvincingly makes the aforementioned trio of characters go on a makeshift road trip: Simon has travel down a few states to ask his estranged parents for money, with Udall driving and Carol keeping everybody company as a sort of payment for Udall’s helping of her son.
This plot development’s labored, but I also suppose it’s a testament to how labored As Good As It Gets is as the whole — so much is in service to Udall’s “becoming a better man” that the characters surrounding him are thrust into confounding arcs that play like external storylines in a Chuck Lorre comedy. The performers are great here — Nicholson’s abrasive but obviously soft inside (and the best thing in the movie); Kinnear’s appropriately sweet; and Hunt embodies this outspoken working woman with tremendous heart — but they’re often betrayed by a screenplay which doesn’t seem to know them as well as we do.
I wish the film’d more riskily dig into the weak spots of these individuals. Has Udall always been such a cactus, or did his callousness simply ignite a few years ago? Who was Simon before he became a victim on the road to recovery? (We briefly hear about his upbringing, but what about after that?) What is it about Udall that Carol likes so much?
The almost-but-not-quite three dimensionality of these characters, then, is frustrating. We can tell that if Brooks drew these people with more vivid detail instead of making sure they be so much in service to Udall, the film’d be something of a comedy masterpiece with just enough compassion to make it substantial. It’s all too plot driven for a movie containing such likable — and uncommonly complex — characters. So much about As Good As It Gets is terrific, especially its lightly ironic dialogue and its raw performances. Why, then, is it so much more committed to ensuring its Scrooge story hit all the same usual notes than to what makes it so interesting in the first place? B-
James L. Brooks
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
2 Hrs., 19 Mins.
As Good As It Gets
nly Jack Nicholson could have played Melvin Udall, the misanthropic, homophobic, and racist protagonist of As Good As It Gets (1997). Any other actor in the role might be instantaneously detestable, incapable of convincingly undergoing an expected redemption arc because they can’t convince us that they’ve really changed.
Nicholson’s different. You know how he is, with his cocky affectation. His ultra-confident demeanor. His almost devilish physical appearance. His persona is built on characteristics we almost immediately dislike, and we’ve have had to,