A COMEDY FROM THE HEART THAT GOES FOR THE THROAT.
In 1994, writer-director James L. Brooks went through hell with I’ll Do Anything, a comedy-drama with musical sequences. There was a lot of work behind it – Twyla Tharp did the choreography and there were songs by among others Carole King and Prince. But the previews got such a disastrously negative response that Brooks cut out all the musical sequences and added new scenes to make up for them. In the end, the movie bombed and the critics didn’t like it.
Three years later, James Cameron may have declared himself ”king of the world” with Titanic… but Brooks was also back at the top of his game.
Suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a best-selling novelist who has built his life around simple procedures, caused by his obsessive-compulsive disorder. But Melvin is also a terrible human being, ill-tempered, racist and homophobic. That doesn’t exactly sit well with his neighbor, gay artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), who has a small dog, Verdell, that Melvin can’t stand. The only person part of the author’s everyday routines who actually seems able to handle him is a waitress at a local diner, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), whose very asthmatic son means the world to her. She usually puts up with Melvin’s habits and rude behavior, but there are limits. When Simon is attacked and almost killed by robbers, Melvin is presented with a dilemma…
An unconventional romance
The director made the beautiful, funny and very moving Terms of Endearment (1983), a film I love. This one isn’t exactly a ”blood relative”, but explores human relationships in the same way (like most of Brooks’s movies do) – there’s equal shares of comedy and drama, and some of it quite touching as well. The unconventional romance between the waitress and the author is undeniably interesting.
The writers seem to agree with us that it doesn’t exactly look convincing from the start; Carol often seems at a loss trying to explain to herself why on earth she would want Melvin in her life. After all, he’s considerably older and such a prick that he almost seems unlovable. It’s up to Nicholson and the writers to walk a fine line here – and they pull it off. The script has a few key moments, highlighted to great effect by Brooks, that discreetly reveal a different side to Melvin, a sort of desperate plea for help aimed at the one person who might save him from himself. There is an irresistible delicacy to the way the filmmakers address everything that’s fucked up in the two leads’ lives. Nicholson is brilliant here, creating a perfect balance between Melvin the hater (who is softened because his sarcastic lines are often very funny) and Melvin the human being behind the hard shell. The actor conveys those vulnerabilities in such a lovely way that we fall for it. To some extent, he’s the equivalent of Shirley MacLaine’s character in Terms of Endearment.
Hunt is also wonderful as the woman who constantly sacrifices herself to protect her son, but needs to take a step back. Kinnear, the former talkshow host, is a revelation as Simon who goes through hell recovering after that robbery and realizes that his gay-bashing neighbor has redeeming qualities.
There is indeed a formula. And of course, there’s a lot of sentimentality to it. In James L. Brooks’s worst films, it’s a problem. But in his best, like this one and Terms of Endearment, we ignore reason. Why should we care about that when everything else is so good, from Brooks’s direction and storytelling, and the way our emotions are engaged, to the acting?
As Good As It Gets 1997-U.S. 138 min. Color. Produced by James L. Brooks, Bridget Johnson, Kristi Zea. Directed by James L. Brooks. Screenplay: Mark Andrus, James L. Brooks. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding, Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight… Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, Lawrence Kasdan, Shane Black, Todd Solondz, Maya Rudolph.
Trivia: Melanie Griffith and Woody Harrelson were allegedly considered for roles.
Oscars: Best Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Hunt). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Hunt).
Quote: “Never, never, interrupt me, okay? Not if there’s a fire, not even if you hear the sound of a thud from my home and one week later there’s a smell coming from there that can only be a decaying human body and you have to hold a hanky to your face because the stench is so thick that you think you’re going to faint. Even then, don’t come knocking. Or, if it’s election night, and you’re excited and you wanna celebrate because some fudgepacker that you date has been elected the first queer president of the United States and he’s going to have you down to Camp David, and you want someone to share the moment with. Even then, don’t knock.” (Nicholson to Kinnear)
Last word: “At first I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t understand the tone of it. I was open on that and it was an exploration. There were a lot of late ideas in it. It was a late idea to make Jack’s character chemically ill. It was a late idea to put the emphasis on he and the girl. It’s very hard to explore what to do with a picture at a certain budget. There is another type of budget where you can just say ‘We know what we want to do and it’s this [snaps fingers]!’ And for me, because I’m a responsible person, you start to feel very weird if you’re out there playing with someone else’s money without a clear idea of what you’re doing with it. But, like most things, it worked out in the end. It just took that little extra time of exploration.” (Brooks, The Hollywood Interview)