50 Films I Love: James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets (1997), Film Companion

How do you like your love stories? I prefer a mix of realism and fairytale. So that the emotions hit hard but they are couched in magic. And I’ve always been a sucker for happy endings! Which is why As Good as It Gets is one of my favourite love stories.

This film has predictable beats but the writing, dialogue and performances – the two lead actors won Oscars – push it to another level. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a New York novelist, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Melvin is a nasty man. He is an equal opportunity offender – hurling homophobic, racist and sexist insults at the slightest opportunity. In the first scene, he throws his neighbour’s dog down the garbage chute. The neighbour, Simon played by Greg Kinnear, is gay. So Melvin calls him a pansy-ass stool pusher. Later in the film, he introduces Simon to Carol with: Carol the waitress, Simon the fag.

Carol the waitress, played by a luminous Helen Hunt, is the one bright spark in Melvin’s life. She’s a woman with humour, intelligence, strength and enough compassion to even embrace a curmudgeon like Melvin. She serves him every day at his favourite restaurant. And when he crosses the line, she firmly puts him in his place. Early in the film, Simon tells Melvin, you don’t love anything. But over the next two hours, we see exactly the opposite – Melvin learns to love Carol, Simon and even the dog.

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This is the stuff of formula but director James L. Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus elevate it with terrific writing. The premise is straight out of the romantic novels that Melvin writes but the scenes have a sting. The scenario never becomes saccharine. At one point, Melvin at the psychiatrist’s office, looks at all the people in the waiting room, and plaintively asks – what if this is as good as it gets?

And then there is this scene, in which Carol demands that he pay her a compliment and this is what he says:

Melvin would have been unpalatable if anyone but Jack Nicholson was playing him. Who else can combine sheer awfulness with such charm? But the backbone here is Helen Hunt. Like a finely tuned instrument, her face registers every emotion. You see Carol’s generosity but also her raw, frayed nerves.

Brooks tells this story with simplicity. At one point, Simon says, “You look at someone long enough, you discover their humanity.” The humanity is what comes through most strongly.

You can see As Good as It Gets on Netflix.

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