As Good as it Gets
James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).
Brooks’ conceit is of cantankerous OCD misanthrope – and author of romantic fiction – Melvin Udall (Nicholson) being racist, homophobic, sexist, you name it, but not really. Underneath it all, he’s a good egg who loves animals, people of any race or persuasion, and even cares for sickeningly sick kids. He’s just awkward, y’know? Cast a less magnetic personality in this part and you have a complete turn off. Even with Nicholson, you’re left seriously doubting the sanity of Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) in inviting Melvin into her life and are under no illusion this relationship doesn’t stand a hope in hell of lasting.
One of As Good as it Gets’ problems is that we’re asked to invest in Melvin and Carol as if they’re real people, but nothing about Brooks confection conveys that. Even the sneering is saccharine, because it’s delivered knowing Melvin is a diamond deep down; As Good as It Gets is so loaded in favour of Jack changing, there’s no bite to anything Melvin does. And there’s the way the lines are all precision-designed for ad clips and Oscar campaigns, surely the secret of its success (beyond its star turn).
I suppose you could forward the idea that there’d be no studio appetite to make this movie today (however one might characterise the current last vestiges of civilisation as we know it). In an age of once-and-always-cancelled wokesterism, Melvin might get away with dropping cute ickle pug Verdell down the laundry chute, but there’s no way he’d measure up for forgiveness calling Simon (Gregg Kinnear) a “fudgepacker”, one intent on pulling “the stiff one eye on me”, insulting Jewish diners (“Appetites aren’t as big as your noses, huh?’) or furnishing the (nicked from John Updike) response regarding how he writes women so well (“I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability”).
I don’t think such a “daring” assessment would be especially to As Good as it Gets’ credit, though. The whole movie is so creakily calculated, perhaps even wokesters would be able to see what it’s doing. Kinnear’s Simon is borderline caricature (he could happily mince his way through The Birdcage remake). Kinnear’s a good actor – his Jack impression is first rate – but Simon’s a thoroughly thankless victim role, and it might have need someone like (thoroughly cancelled) first choice Geoffrey Rush to milk actual pathos from him.
One might make also make the argument that Melvin is himself afflicted, with allusions to his own troubled childhood as a counterbalance to Simon’s, and that he has, like a good and decent American, started taking his meds. As Good as it Gets is grotesquely in favour of allopathic chicanery and psychiatric voodoo. All it takes for little Spence (Jesse James) to get back on his feet and start scoring at football is switching to a decent doctor (that, and someone who can afford a decent doctor). One who’ll prescribe the right pharmaceuticals. You know, rather than Carol taking responsibility as a parent and making hard choices. Like not living in a polluted city or stuffing your kid full of toxins.
Little of the movie’s emotional “weight” carries enough substance to be other than dead weight between Jack scenes. Helen Hunt – 24 years younger than Jack; Shirley Knight is a year older than Nicholson as Carol’s mum – does a decent job of playing Mevlin’s foil, but the devoted waitress mother of an impossibly wretched moppet is a cliché beyond belief. Brooks attempts shameless manipulation of the sort that actively distracts from feeling anything, be it Greg telling us what happened with his parents or the ultra-cornball “You make me want to be a better man” scene. Indeed, it’s a skin-crawling remark, one probably appropriated by wife beaters everywhere over the decades since.
Cuba Gooding Jr is in the mix, having become a parody of himself in the space of a year, but I guess at least his agent was showing him the money back then (now, of course: cancelled). There are also brief roles for performers I had no memory of being there – perhaps because they weren’t very well known when I first saw it – such as Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Wood Harris and Julie Benz. Writer-directors appear in cameos, including Harold Ramis, Lawrence Kasdan and Shane Black (the former two as doctors, the latter telling Melvin to get out of the café).
As Good as it Gets was nominated for seven Oscars, scoring for Jack and Helen. Neither made much capital from the wins; Jack was beginning to wind down, and only really About Schmidt stood out during his final decade (and a bit) of a movies. Hunt took a couple of years off and never really convinced anyone that she was at home on the big screen (at any rate, she seems to have been more engaged by directing than acting over the past two decades).
The picture was originally titled Old Friends, and maybe it would have ended up another I’ll Do Anything or How Do You Know under that title. Not that As Good as it Gets is exactly a keeper, but it has a trace of energy to it. Old Friends is a limp lettuce. As Good as it Gets goes down easily thanks to Jack and a filmmaker dedicated to serving the people what they think they want, but it’s more by default that it’s more deserving of that year’s Best Picture than the winner. It certainly isn’t within a sniff of the same league as the real should-have-been L.A. Confidential.