"As Good As It Gets"
Every time I saw the trailer for "As Good As It Gets" -- and I saw it a lot -- all I could think was that I've become very weary of Jack Nicholson.
Not that he isn't a great actor. It's just that no one hires him to act anymore. They hire him to show up and be Jack, which is what "As Good As It Gets" looked like to me.
But I was wrong -- very wrong. The rude, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist in this film, penned by director James L. Brooks and writing partner Mark Andrus, is Nicholson's best performance in years. Sure, the Nicholson-isms are there, but they're subtlety integrated into a refreshingly offensive and somehow endearing character.
A disturbed fellow, Melvin washes his hands dozens of time a day with a new bar of soap each time. He eats the same meal at the same table in the same restaurant at the same time every day. And Melvin is flabbergastingly ill-mannered to everyone.
But when his next door neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear), a gay painter he's been picking on for years, is hospitalized after being attacked, Melvin is saddled with caring for the man's precious pooch while he's in the hospital.
Not that Melvin volunteered. He had shoved the same dog down a garbage chute in the opening scene. But the neighbor's lover (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) forces the dog on him and suddenly Melvin's long buried humanity begins to emerge. Yet "As Good As It Gets" is anything but a cute dog movie. Nicholson would never stand for it.
He learns to cope with the dog's demands on his habitual schedule, but when he visits his restaurant for lunch and his usual waitress is out for the day taking care of her sickly child, these compound changes become too much for him.
Helen Hunt plays Carol, the waitress, and if there's any such thing as a sure thing Oscar nomination, this performance is it. Hunt has this amazing face that, capable of the most fantastic and subtle expressions, which she puts to good use in this pained, potent, affecting and funny performance.
As a single mom who lives solely to provide for her ill child, she has a hard enough time putting up with Melvin day in and day out. So when he suddenly pays for her son to see a bevy of specialists, just so she can be at work each day, she doesn't know what to think.
Director Brooks ("Broadcast News"), known for this kind of emotionally bare comedy-drama, deftly maintains a precarious balance in "As Good As It Gets." He mines good laughs from tragic circumstances (the Frankenstien-stitched face of a hospitalized Simon is played for guffaws) and entreats very raw emotions from his cast, who deliver beautifully.
Slowly, carefully Melvin forms uneasy friendships with both Simon and Carol, who suspects ulterior motives to Melvin's kindness.
In getting his routine back on track, Melvin manages to wreck Carol's own habit of worrying constantly about her son, whose health improves exponentially under the care of Melvin's doctors (there's an applause-winning slam at HMOs in one scene).
The last half of "As Good As It Gets" could have been better, opting for some gimmicky plot devices (a road trip) and tentatively steering Melvin and Carol into a romantic relationship that's hard to buy. But the performances here are so strong it's a joy to watch these characters, even if their actions don't entirely make sense.