(director/writer: James L. Brooks; screenwriters: Mark Andrus/based on a story by Andrus; cinematographer: John Bailey; editor: Richard Marks; cast: Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Frank Sachs); Runtime: 138; TriStar Pictures; 1997)


“It should be retitled How Good It Couldn’t Be.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

As Good as it Gets”is a formula-driven sitcom type of film, with nothing fresh attempted. It should be retitled “How Good It Couldn’t Be.” The film relies mainly on the comic antics of Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall) to carry the ball. He is an obnoxious curmudgeon. Nicholson plays this successful and wealthy writer who at one time was under private therapy treatment for an obsessive/compulsive disorder, which explains his wearing of gloves both indoors and outdoors, eating at restaurants only with plastic utensils, and not stepping on the cracks of a sidewalk (I do the same thing and no one diagnosed me with that psychological problem; but, come to think of it, with me its more about it being bad luck to step on a crack). Melvin’s character defects are more probably just a case of him being a turd.

Nicholson was real funny doing this shtick. At his edgiest moments, when he crosses the line of common decency and reaches a point where the audience might not like him anymore, he brought the most laughter to the screen. But you could just bet your honest-to-God paycheck that when he threw his gay neighbor’s little dog down his Greenwich Village apartment garbage chute in the opening scene, his character was going to be redeemed by the end of the film.

This “feel good” sitcom goes on and on for over two hours as if this was an important film with so much to say that it couldn’t leave out a scene or two or three. It shows Melvin at his bigoted worst and then at his most generous best.

With Melvin’s artist neighbor Simon (Greg), he would go into his fag joke routine. With the only waitress, Carol (Hunt), who would serve him in his favorite restaurant, he would still resort to personal insults. If you believe Melvin has changed or if anything is supposed to happen that is for the better in his character, then I guess you believe something I didn’t, or couldn’t, or rather, I didn’t care if I believed it or not. The story didn’t matter much, this was going to be a cosmetic psychological rendering to a real situation. The film wants only to create a slickness about its characterizations of people so the audience could have enough laughs at Melvin’s insensitivity to others and be diverted by that, and walk out of the theater happy to believe that Melvin wasn’t so bad a guy after all, that is, when they see him as a changed man.

What saves this film from itself is that the actors are so good, that this film is actually a hoot in many different ways besides its great one-liners. The actors are really into their roles, getting into the minutia of their characters. Carol, the single-parent living with her mother in Brooklyn, wears house dresses middle-aged apartment dwellers might appreciate, as she walks like she came out of the hospital; which, in fact, is where she does come out of. Melvin walks like he’s a bit daffy. I loved that slide-step, something like Jackie Gleason did on the “Honeymooners” TV show. His outfits were a bland middle-aged man’s delight. He’d fit in on any cruise liner excursion. Simon walks like he’s the sensitive homosexual artist he is supposed to be. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Frank, the gay art dealer and friend of Simon, and he walks as if he is wearing high heels to a Greenwich Village Halloween party.

After a few scenes of introducing Melvin as a turd, the film changes direction when Simon is severely beaten up by robbers and he is forced to come down from his high horse of being so proud of who he thinks he is and gets Melvin to watch the dog he recovered after Melvin threw it down the chute. The film now proudly states, look at how Melvin has improved since he has fallen in love with man’s best friend. By walking the dog around town and bringing it to the restaurant, he begins to make Carol think that he is almost human. When Carol quits her job to be nearer her sick son, the distraught Melvin can’t get along without her serving him in the restaurant. So he does the unthinkable, without informing Carol he pays for a top-notch doctor for her son who is able to cure the kid and make Carol eternally grateful to him. But she goes out of her way to make it clear to him that she never intends to sleep with him, even though he has never even hinted at that.

The remainder of the film is predictable and pretty much made up of contrived sitcom stuff. The only purpose of following the story from here on, is to get to hear some of the one-liners that break-up the tedium of the plot. Melvin is in love with Carol and has a chance of scoring, even though she told him never. So what does the schlimazel do, he screws it up by saying the worst thing he can possibly say to her. He even refuses to dance with her. But the film couldn’t take a chance of sticking to this unsafe type of humor and went back to its safer plot. And the plot keys in on how Melvin is reforming for Carol as it goes back and forth–good Melvin, bad Melvin — with the filmmaker unsure of how rotten or nice a guy he wants to make Melvin. I wonder how many screening polls they must have had, before they came up with the right box office formula for success!

Some of my favorite lines in this flick were: Simon to Melvin, “The best thing you have going for you, is your willingness to humiliate yourself.” Carol to Melvin, “Come in and try not to ruin everything by being you.”

I must say, I thought Helen Hunt looked a lot like Meryl Streep. Now that’s a compliment, Helen!