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On Dec. 23, 1997, Columbia Pictures unveiled James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets in theaters, where it would go on to gross $314 million globally. The film earned seven nominations at the 70th Academy Awards, winning for Jack Nicholson in the lead actor category and Helen Hunt in the lead actress category. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
A man who hates dogs, women and children can’t be all bad, right?
Well, maybe in this PC age you’d be testing audience tolerance with a lead character holding those views, but James L. Brooks has pulled it off in Sony’s As Good as It Gets. It’s an acidic love story, involving a nasty misogynist, that warms the heart with the juices of its testy story.
With terrific lead performances by Jack Nicholson as a demonic novelist and Helen Hunt as a Manhattan waitress, As Good as It Gets is as good as mature adult entertainment gets on the silver screen. Edgy and idiosyncratic, this TriStar romance will definitely not be cuddly enough for certain audience tastes, but Brooks can chalk this one up in his own as-good-as-it-gets column, along with Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News.
A bittersweet modern love story, Good starts out bitter and becomes sweet, though it’s a sweetness not hyped by artificial story stimulants. The first half-hour is alternately hilarious and hard to swallow as reclusive romance novelist Melvin Udall (Nicholson) spews venom on all in his path, throwing his gay neighbor’s dog down a garbage chute and berating the good-hearted waitress who serves him his breakfast at the same time every day at the same table.
Melvin, as you may guess, is an obsessive-compulsive of the highest order. He brings his own plastic cutlery to the restaurant for fear of germs. He’s not merely a curmudgeon, he’s a bludgeoning bully who uses his verbal abilities to assault all who pass in his way, particularly those too helpless to fire back.
So the film begins with Melvin at war with his world, tyrannizing his neighbors and all who get in his carefully ordered path. The hilarity of the opening scenes, including some misanthropic wit, leaves us in a bit of a muddle as we try to get our bearings. Nicholson’s tirades are at once humorous and off-putting.
Good ping-pongs between black comedy and slice-of-life drama, and it’s not until after the opening half-hour that we get a sense of the film’s nature: Beneath the wisecracks and crankery, it’s essentially a story of towering personal struggle as Melvin and Carol (Hunt) struggle to overcome debilitating personal demons.
As the ancient Greeks had their different forms of love — eros, philos, etc. — so too do scriptwriters Mark Andrus and Brooks, as Melvin gradually, with great pain and struggle, learns to love. He realizes that his obsessive self-centeredness and cruelty not only make him offensive to others, they are ruining his life.
In Andrus’ and Brooks’ cagey craftsmanship, Melvin is taken along gradually, one step at a time — beginning with doggy love, neighborly love and ultimately, romantic love.
Although predictable in the sense that we follow Melvin’s fitful and gradual progression, As Good as It Gets transcends its structural schematics, owing chiefly to the film’s scorchingly brainy dialogue. When asked by a fawning female fan how he writes women characters so well, Melvin replies: “I write men, then take away their reason and accountability.”
Brooks’ direction is marvelous, easing the narrative forward with an entertainer’s sense of the audience while never packaging the pain and fear his characters endure into easy or feel-good framing.
The performances, too, are sensational. With his imposing forehead titled back, his hair plastered rigid and mean and his glare targeted not to the eyes but rather to an odd spot on his victim’s face, Nicholson is a frightening spectacle. Magically, he manages to leak out the character’s dormant strength and need to join the human race in a believable and, ultimately, inspiring fashion.
Hunt’s performance should certainly win her an Oscar nom. It is no star turn, but evinces a woman who is so run down by her role as a caregiver that, like Melvin, she is no longer able to embrace life. She gives a brave, selfless performance, allowing herself to look dowdy and withered, but wondrously showing the vitality of a woman who finds that receiving can be as good as giving.
Among the supporting roles, Greg Kinnear as Melvin’s neighbor shows unmistakable acting talent as a gay artist who has sunk to the depths of personal depression, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is a delight as his feisty lover and protector. — Duane Byrge, originally published Dec. 10, 1997.
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