Wednesday 31 August 2011

As Good as It Gets (1997)


As far as prolific filmmakers go, James L. Brooks isn’t really one of them. Certainly, his televisual output is far more regular, and he’s certainly no Terrence Malick, who very much likes to take his time between films. Nevertheless, Brooks has proved himself rather sporadic, but also with some real success. His first film, 1983’s Terms of Endearment, won him three Oscars, and 1987’s Broadcast News earned several awards and nominations. His 1994 follow-up was less successful, though not without its charms. However, he made a much bigger splash when, in 1997, he reunited with friend Jack Nicholson for a typically acerbic romantic comedy that put him back on much firmer ground in the film world.

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a cranky, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive writer living in New York. When his gay artist neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear) is beaten and hospitalised, Melvin is forced to look after his dog. His brief time with the dog prompts some change in Melvin, leading him to try and help the son of Carol (Helen Hunt), the only waitress who will tolerate him in the only restaurant he’ll go to. Initially, Melvin just wants her there to serve him breakfast, but it becomes obvious there’s more to it.

The script for As Good as It Gets was written by Mark Andrus, making it only his second script to be produced. His first film was a sort of time-travel comedy called Late for Dinner, which did decent enough business. His next project was entitled Old Friends, which was about the most despicable man in New York and his gay neighbour. Despite interest from some very talented people (Kevin Kline, Ralph Fiennes and Holly Hunter, no less), the project remained unproduced until James L. Brooks got a hold of it. Given Brooks’ own predilections in writing, and some apparent problems in the initial draft, he gave it a rewrite, though kept the same tone and overall feel. As it is the characters themselves are wonderfully drawn and defined. One of the most defining aspects of Brooks’ work as a writer and director is the nicely observed details in his characters. In As Good as It Gets, Simon explains his artistic process to his latest model:
Simon: “All right, what I do is…I watch people. Do you ever watch someone
who doesn’t know that your watching them? An old lady on a street corner, or
some kids getting on a bus to school? Well, they stand there and you look, and
all of a sudden this… flash comes over them, and you know it has nothing to
do with anything external, because that hasn’t changed. They just suddenly
become realer and more alive. If you look at someone long enough, you can
discover their humanity.”

It’s not just Simon that works this way; as a writer, so does Melvin, as he admits later to Carol. The only difference is that Melvin takes these observations from afar. Nevertheless, they both do it, and this is most certainly how Brooks works, too. Only Carol is free from this affliction, mainly because she doesn’t have the time. Between her work and her sick child, her few attempts to look beyond her very limited space rarely work out well for her, and even then she feels a little guilty for taking focus away from her work or her son.

Indeed, this comes to be something that connects these three characters, that they have all, at some stage in the film, given up on some aspect of their lives for one reason or another. Melvin long since gave up on having any kind of real relationships with other people because they annoy him too much, and he’s too caustic and crazy to maintain them, so he’d rather just avoid the whole issue. Carol gave up on herself having a life where someone else finds her desirable or attractive in any way other than someone to bring them food, which makes her that little bit more of an overbearing mother. Simon gives up on himself completely after he’s attacked in his own home, leaving him too physically and psychologically damaged to work, as well as being hit with huge debts from his medical bills. It’s through these connections, and despite their rather obvious disdain that flows between them, that brings them together. They all begin to feel something beyond themselves for the first time in a long time.

There’s a rather pleasing air of the old fashioned about As Good as It Gets, too. If you just drew back somewhat on the language and some of the more suggestive points, there is a slight flavour of the classical Hollywood in there. This is somewhat interesting considering the decidedly modern nature of many aspects of the film. Each of the characters would have had a tough time shining back then as they do here. Melvin, though of a classic curmudgeonly type, is an utterly vile person here. He’s racist, misogynistic, abrupt, nasty. He insults people not because he wants to be funny, but because he wants to injure people. Hell, the film opens with him putting a dog down a garbage chute. If it were anyone other than the legendarily charming Jack Nicholson in the role, you’d wonder why anyone would talk to him, let alone want to interact on a semi-regular basis. Simon, the openly gay artist neighbour, would not exactly be so openly gay if it were back in the 40s or 50s. Even if he were, he’d be a much swishier stereotype than Kinnear allows him to be. Carol would fare better, but her woes with the medical insurance companies feel like a more modern complaint. As it happens, I was listening to an episode of This American Life a few days ago in which they discussed the US healthcare system and, in that particular episode, they mentioned how popular opinion on insurances companies and HMOs had been greatly affected by this film, with many audience members cheering and applauding when Carol spits, “fucking HMO bastard pieces of shit!” Strong words, and they clearly struck a chord with the viewing public. Perhaps the most distinctly old-fashioned thing about As Good as It Gets is its desire to be a “feel good” picture. The characters turn corners within themselves to shoot for a more positive ending, albeit somewhat unrealistically. Yes, it is indeed something of a stretch that some things turn out in certain ways, so you’ll need to suspend disbelief a little harder here and there, but the film does mean well.

The performances throughout the film really are some great work. Helen Hunt nicely captures all the different emotional pulls in Carol. The worry for her son, her frustrated annoyance and shocked affection for Melvin, her anger with the medical companies, her sympathy and friendship with Simon. There’s really little to dislike in her performance. Greg Kinnear also gives some wonderfully affecting work as Simon, who is clearly gay, but never in such a way that feels parodic or mocking. That his growing despair is down without overdramatic wails and cries just makes it more moving. And, of course, there’s no touching Jack Nicholson in this film. It’s a role he clearly and so absolutely relishes that you can see the glint in his eye throughout. The fact that you really don’t hate him like you should, even when you know he’s crossed a line, is evidence of the man’s charm and skill. There’s also some great support from Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simon’s art dealer and Shirley Knight as Carol’s mother. Plus, as a fun game, you can try counting the minor roles and faces in the background that would go onto greater success in television roles… not counting Yeardley Smith, I saw four.

As Good as It Gets is somewhat flawed, with interesting points of character being occasionally overlooked in favour of heading in a more agreeable, if slightly artificial denouement. However, it is a warm film, made even more affecting by the fact that it wrestles such a genuine glow from some moments of such despair in its characters’ lives. The acting is some fine work, with the three leads shining superbly. Naturally, it’s Nicholson that steals things, delivering a character of such gleeful acidity with the skill of someone who seems incapable of not being charming. You don’t have to ignore its flaws, but just try to take in the sincerity and remember the film just wants to make you feel better, even if only for a little while.

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