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As Good as it Gets Movie Review

Director: James L. Brooks

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Jesse James, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Bibi Osterwald, Harold Ramis, Lawrence Kasdan, Julie Benz, Shane Black

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Helen Hunt)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Greg Kinnear), Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

There are some things only Jack Nicholson can get away with – telling a waitress to “…hold the chicken between your knees”, convincing a group of insane men to break out of a mental institution, calling a gay man a “…pansy-ass stool pusher.”

In almost all of his movies, Nicholson seems to take pleasure in getting away with something, his broad grin and trademark eyebrows speaking to his devilish character. He knows how to play the angle and excels at bringing to life characters that would seem near impossible to visualize in the hands of any other actor.

In As Good as it Gets, Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, the Archie Bunker of the 90s. Melvin is a racist. He’s xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and, to top it all off, hates dogs. An obsessive-compulsive who takes pleasure in insulting everyone in his path, Melvin is recluse, spending his time ironically writing romance novels that have women of all ages swooning.

In the hands of Nicholson, Melvin is a curmudgeon, an archetypal Scrooge who refuses to admit he has a problem. In one scene, he sits down to write the ending to one of his romance novels, only to discover he doesn’t have the words to explain what love even is. Of course, that’s because he doesn’t know. In fact, it takes three characters to break him down, each one teaching him a different facet of this emotion he’s spent his entire career trying to define.

From Verdell the dog, Melvin learns affection. In the opening scenes of AGAIG, Melvin is in the process of throwing Verdell down the garbage chute. Having peed in the hallway one too many times, this poor pooch is told by Melvin that “…if you can make it here [in New York], you can make it anywhere” before he’s sent flying to the basement (no worries, the dog is safely found and returned in the next scene!). However, when Melvin is tasked with dog-sitting, he and Verdell develop a bond. As Verdell’s Ewok-like face begins breaking down Melvin’s hard exterior, Melvin becomes almost tolerable as the humanity, hidden deep within himself, begins to manifest.

This opens the door to romance, which comes to him in the form of Carol (Helen Hunt), a waitress in Manhattan. Though she’s everything Melvin isn’t, Carol is also run down by the life she leads, struggling as a single parent and caring for her sick son, Spencer (Jesse James).

When Carol finds herself having to take off work to care for Spencer, Melvin finds it in himself to pay for Spencer’s medical bills, a gesture, no doubt, with obligation.

Finally, Melvin is taught friendship by the most unlikely source yet, a struggling gay artist named Simon (Greg Kinnear). Simon is Melvin’s neighbor and is often the butt of Melvin’s classic one-liners. But after Simon is attacked, battered and left for dead in a robbery gone wrong, he officially hits rock bottom. Unable to pay his mounting medical bills, Simon must bite the bullet and ask his parents, who don’t approve of the fact that he’s gay, for money. Melvin agrees to drive Simon to Baltimore, but cashes in his favor to Carol to come along, scared that Simon might “…pull the stiff one-eye” on him.

And so these three misfits – a racist old man, a gay artist without the will to live and a struggling waitress – hit the open road.

All things considered, the trip isn’t all bad. Relationships blossom, friendships are formed. Melvin realizes his desire to become a better person. But the comedic success of the first half of AGAIG is not met in the second half. These real, relatable human characters are forced into conventional storylines that are almost painful to watch. Melvin and Carol (and really Nicholson and Hunt) never really “click”, which makes their romantic storyline feel all the more forced and contrived. Nicholson struggles with vulnerability, and his prickly personality interferes with our acceptance of Melvin as “a new man”.

That all being said, I still love this film and usually find time about once or twice a year to watch it again. Like many rom-coms, it’s a film you have to enjoy while you’re watching it, because it doesn’t make a whole lotta sense when you stop and think about the logistics.

In Nicholson’s long repertoire of classic characters, Melvin Udall ranks up there with Col. Nathan R. Jessep, Jack Napier and R. P. McMurphy as one of his best. Both Nicholson and Hunt won Oscars for their performances in AGAIG, and the film was nominated for five other Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Kinnear), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.

Anyone who has seen this film knows it could never be made today. It’s a time capsule of a Hollywood long gone, where actors could get away with racist slurs, homophobic jokes and demoralizing comments about women. Yet, at it’s heart, As Good as it Gets is a story about overcoming personal demons, an honest and original comedy about recognizable and relatable human beings.


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