As Good as It Gets (review)

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Three’s Company

I didn’t know quite what to expect from As Good as It Gets (starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear). I had heard good things about it from the press and from friends whose opinions I respect, but I still was ready for a traditional Hollywood romantic comedy. And this is anything but.

Actually, Good is more like the uber romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s than the usual tripe of recent years. (The title alone sounds like some long-lost Hepburn/Tracy screwball flick.) It has a dark side that those old films didn’t always have, but the humor comes from the unique characters, and the pathos never descends into melodrama.
Melvin (Nicholson) is a success as a novelist but a failure as a human being. He’s snide, rude to the point of being obnoxious, mean, nasty — and those are his good qualities. He’s also obsessive/compulsive — won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, locks and unlocks his door five times at a go, and so on.

Carol (Hunt) is Melvin’s waitress in the only restaurant he will eat in. She is preoccupied with her constantly ill son, and lonely — the full-time care Spence requires doesn’t leave her time for a life of her own.

Simon (Kinnear) is Melvin’s neighbor across the hall, an artist and master to Verdell, the cutest ugly little dog you’ve ever seen. Simon may be first gay character in a mainstream movie who isn’t a stereotype. He’s not the peripheral “gay friend” or a mincing twit or a political statement but an actual human being with more to him than simply which gender he’s attracted to.

Verdell is actually a character, too, and not merely a prop, as movie animals usually are. He’s the common denominator that brings these three complex people — each wrapped up in his or her own problem-ridden world — together in the unlikeliest of friendships and the strangest of triangles.

Sound like a soap opera, I know. But As Good as It Gets is laugh-out-loud funny — and there aren’t many things that make me laugh out loud. The humor doesn’t consist quotable one-liners or lame pratfalls, either — it’s all the you-had-to-be-there kind of repartee you have with your closest, oldest friends.

Watching the movie, I kept wanting to be mad at it, especially at the fact that much of what is funny is Melvin. His compulsions are the foundation of the humor — “Oh, that’s nice,” I tried to tell myself, “making fun of mental illness.” Melvin learns to be a better person not through his own misfortune but that of Carol and Simon — “Great, so he doesn’t have to suffer himself,” I thought. But it wouldn’t stick. The characters are too genuine, and Melvin turns out to be his own worst enemy.

Nice to be delighted like that by a movie. As Good As It Gets is, well, as good as things get in Hollywood.

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