As Good as It Gets provokes a dilemma I’ve never encountered before: On one hand, it blazes a trail through difficult issues, such as OCD and homophobia, places Hollywood had long feared to tread. Over on the flip side, the filmmakers create Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), a misanthropic monster, to use as a lighting rod for these groundbreaking issues. Naturally, Melvin’s souped-up Archie Bunker schtick doesn’t age well…but that’s also as intended. All those slurs and ugly jokes can and should wither on the vine. Unfortunately, writer-director James L. Brooks also tries to plug Melvin into the template of a traditional rom-com, leading to an ending that doesn’t land. So, do I reward this movie for how ballsy it was in 1997? Do I ding it for how cringey some of it is now? Or, should I just write the whole thing off as a subpar cinematic experience?
Gets kicks off with Melvin’s repulsive personality in full bloom, as he terrorizes everyone in his Manhattan high-rise. Most of that bile gets directed at his neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear), an openly gay painter. The film opens with Melvin loading Verdell, Simon’s yippie terrier, into a garbage chute. When Simon and his (also gay) manager (Cuba Gooding Jr.) confront Melvin, he unleashes a maelstrom of gay-bashing and racial epithets. It’s here the movie chucks the first cutesy curveball: Melvin storms back into his apartment, and gets back to work crafting his latest romance novel. Yup–Melvin is a hack writer who cranks out shameless potboilers for an unsuspecting public.
Meanwhile, that same unsuspecting public gets an unfortunate dose of the actual Melvin at a nearby diner. Turns out, our repugnant hero is nursing a puppy crush on Carol (Helen Hunt), a pretty, ever-patient waitress who can even tolerate a dickweed like Melvin. Every day, he storms into the restaurant, carefully arranges his own silverware, and asks for Carol by name. Gradually, her vulnerability and warmth draw out his own: We learn that Carol’s son (Jesse James) is desperately ill from asthma, and struggles to get proper health care. At first, Melvin wants to help for the sake of his own selfish needs, but he soon sees that kindness can be its own reward.
This lesson also extends to Simon, who suffers terribly over the course of the film. After enduring Melvin’s casual cruelty, Simon is robbed and savagely beaten by a gang of street kids. The film tries to play Simon’s goose eggs and Frankenstein stitches for humor, but these scenes are thoroughly heart-breaking. Over time, Simon’s plight even touches Melvin’s calloused soul: He grows completely attached to Verdell, and slowly to Simon, as well.
Jack and Helen won well-deserved Oscars for their work, but the character of Simon (and Kinnear’s performance) might represent the best of As Good as It Gets. Until this film, Hollywood largely regarded gay characters as nothing more than one-dimensional comic relief. (The year before Gets, The Rock‘s depiction of a flamboyantly gay hairdresser is as cheap and flimsy as in any stereotype in any movie. Ever.) Here, Simon is rendered into an actual human being: He’s affable, kind, and often serves as the eyes through which we view Melvin’s latest horror. We empathize and sympathize with Simon, in a way that feels new to a movie production of this scale. Further, Kinnear’s performance is absolutely outstanding, and every bit as Oscar-worthy as the two main stars.
As the protagonist, Melvin is much more problematic. He’s certainly in the conversation for most unlikable central character in cinema history. During production, Nicholson had justifiable anxiety that Melvin’s hatefulness would torpedo the movie’s marketability. As a result, the film plays Melvin’s OCD behaviors, such as lock-turning and hand-scrubbing, for the same easy giggles it avoids with the Simon character. If anything, this wrongheaded attempt at humor serves as a yardstick for how far we’ve come in the conversation about mental health. Plus, it’s also a testament to Nicholson’s enormous star power that As Good as It Gets was able to rake in the box office it did.
So, how do I rate this movie? Gets feels like a highfalutin indie movie, stuck in the body of a big-budget, superstar production. Its loftier ambitions have faded like tannins in red wine, leaving behind a film loaded with moments that don’t age well. Aside from its cringier aspects, I chose to focus on As Good as It Gets as a showcase for great acting. I think it’s totally possible to admire Nicholson’s unhinged performance as Melvin, even if I never fully bought his Ebenezer Scrooge awakening, or his sudden third-act metamorphosis into rom-com butterfly. Hunt is truly magnificent as the wounded flower, and Kinnear might be the most underrated actor I’ve ever seen. Nothing else about this film is all that great, but the lead performances truly are as good as you’ll ever get.
139 min. PG-13. Netflix.