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Laughing at the darkness in 'As Good As It Gets'

Scenes from 'As Good As It Gets' January 6, 1998
Web posted at: 11:23 p.m. EST (0423 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- In the past few weeks I've read and seen several interviews with writer/director James Brooks concerning his new movie, "As Good As It Gets."

Even now, Brooks has trouble describing what tone he and his actors (Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding, Jr.) were shooting for in the story of a group of beleaguered New Yorkers who shout and snap at each other as their basic form of communication, then realize just how much they mean to one another.

Now that I've seen the movie, I share Brooks' confusion. I eventually enjoyed it quite a bit, but the unnerving first hour or so, in which everyone seems to get up on the wrong side of the bed and slam face-first into a wall, had me wondering. Brooks wants to establish the darkness in these characters' lives, and does so several times over. You start to feel ugly for watching it after a while.

Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a popular novelist who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The uncertainty in Brooks' approach to the material is best illustrated by Melvin's shenanigans around his apartment.

I wasn't sure the audience was supposed to be laughing as Melvin throws away his bars of soap after washing his hands once, or when he has to lock and un-lock his front door exactly five times before he feels comfortable using it.

Melvin is also foul-mouthed, a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, and just generally despicable in the human being department. I'll wait while you stop chuckling.

Maybe this uneasiness is what Brooks was shooting for, but it's painful to sit through when you know that eventually the movie is going to be a romantic comedy.

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    Melvin's gay neighbor, a painter named Simon, is played by Greg Kinnear, who gives a real, honest-to-God performance instead of riding on his "Talk Soup," regular-guy charisma, and he does the best work in the movie. This is no small accomplishment when you consider the cast.

    The opening scenes show Melvin repeatedly belittling Simon, and even dropping his cute little dog down the trash chute in their building after he's relieved himself in the hallway.

    Kinnear is great when Simon attempts to dredge up the anger to properly put Melvin in his place. His ire rises to a peak and then slips away, as if he can't really keep a grip on it. It's a tempered, forgiving performance.

    This makes it all the more awful when Simon walks in on thieves who are robbing his apartment and gets pounded into a bloody pulp. This is one of the most honest portrayals I've ever seen of a gay character in an American film. Brooks and Kinnear should both be applauded for it. It's also a shame, in this day and age, that it should stand out so much.

    Though Simon serves as the impetus towards a healing for all the characters, the majority of the story is taken up with Melvin's awkward, grasping attempt to woo Carol, his favorite waitress at a local diner.

    Helen Hunt is Carol, and you can't help but love Helen Hunt. Her appeal, to me, anyway, is the same as that of actresses like Minnie Driver and Janeane Garofalo. She radiates a self-aware intelligence, seems to be "regular-woman" enough that any man could approach her without trembling, and then, when you're not ready for it, transforms herself into a startlingly beautiful vision.

    The movie often goes a step (and even two steps) too far, especially when lining up Carol's misery for the world to soak in. She has a highly asthmatic son who can barely get out of the house and regularly throws up on her; a semi-nagging mother who lives with her; too many doctor bills; and, I would imagine, an ulcer the size of Mike Tyson's fist.

    The hurt that swirls around the characters sometimes had the back of my neck burning. The second half of the movie, when everyone starts to realize that maybe they can use each other as defense mechanisms against an unforgiving world, rather than as punching bags for unspeakable anger, is when things pick up and you can finally enjoy the experience.

    The actors are uniformly fine, but Nicholson, as he has for several years now, bothers me a little bit. Check out his performances in the mid-1970s to see what he's actually capable of. There's a subtlety to his work in movies like "Chinatown" and "The Last Detail" (my vote for the best single performance of the decade) that's been missing from his cocked-eyebrow, saber-toothed-grin escapades of the '80s and '90s.

    When "As Good As It Gets" begins to wind down into a sweet epiphany, Nicholson shines as he hasn't in a long, long time, but before then Melvin is a show-off role.

    At the very least, there's a reason for his whooping and hollering, aside from the fact that people expect Jack Nicholson to whoop and holler, but Melvin is defined by broad strokes. Nicholson is capable of painting an entire portrait on a thimble, and it would be nice if he'd get around to doing it again. He's one of the best ever, but I can't remember the last time he was up to displaying that for an entire movie. Melvin may be as good as it gets at the moment, but it certainly could get better.

    "As Good As It Gets," like other James Brooks movies, is a crowd-pleaser, and I mean that in the best possible way. There's some partial nudity, a severe beating, and (for a while) a tone that suggests maybe life isn't worth living. Stick with it if you're not warming to it at first. It's worth your time, aside from some overly-mushy stuff near the end. 130 minutes. PG-13.


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