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No one but Jack Nicholson could have played Melvin Udall in James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets. Melvin Udall is a despicable, angry man who spews nasty, hurtful comments at everyone within shouting distance, but at the same time Nicholson makes us laugh at Melvin. That's no easy combination. "He's the worst person I've ever met," says Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), the only waitress in New York who will dare serve him. When one of his fans (Melvin is a novelist) asks him "How do you write women so well?" Melvin says, "I think of a man--then I take away reason and accountability." And when we first meet Melvin, he promptly drops a dog down a trash chute--and we listen as the dog bounces back and forth in the chute all the way to the apartment basement. Ka-whump! But what makes the character work--and what allows us to laugh at him--is the vulnerability and desperation that Nicholson allows to show through Melvin's contemptible exterior.
Melvin suffers from an obsessive/compulsive disorder that leaves him obsessed with every little detail of life. He wears gloves, avoids stepping on sidewalk cracks, and uses his own plastic silverware in restaurants. He keeps his medicine cabinet full of bars of soap because he only uses each bar once before throwing it away. His medical condition is extreme, but at the same time, because we all get obsessive about some things and compulsive about others, it's easy to relate to Melvin. In addition, his barbs are so totally unprovoked and so ridiculously exaggerated that we can sit back and marvel at his viciousness without judging him too harshly. His reactions to other people are primarily his own defense mechanisms against the rest of the world and not simply pure nastiness. We also get to see how vulnerable Melvin becomes when his world is shaken up, when his usual waitress isn't on duty or when a little dog runs into his apartment. "No one's been in here before!" he shouts.
With his craggy, creased face, the eyebrows that arch mischievously, the corners of his mouth that turn up like a naughty boy's, Nicholson gives us a Melvin Udall who can spew the most vicious vitriol imaginable and not only get away with it but suck our jaws to the floor in wonder. Udall is a piece of work. He's also one of the finest comic creations to hit a movie screen in the past decade.
The story itself involves Melvin's neighbor, an artist named Simon Nye (Greg Kinnear). Simon's gay lifestyle provides Melvin with ammunition for some of his most devastating barbs. Simon owns a small dog, a rare European breed that looks sort of like Gizmo in Gremlins. After an accident, Simon lands in the hospital. With no one else to turn to, Simon's art dealer (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) shoves the dog upon Melvin. After his initial shock and disgust at having a dog in his apartment, Melvin develops an attachment to the dog, even passing on his obsessions to the dog, who begins avoiding cracks on the sidewalk--just like Melvin!
Thanks to Verdell, Melvin's vicious exterior starts to melt. It only melts a little, but that's enough that Melvin's life begins to change for the better. He even begins to date his favorite waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), in one of the strangest love stories ever put on film. Carol has problems of her own. Her son's illness has taken over her life and made it virtually impossible for her to go out on dates or have a normal life.
Nicholson dwarfs Hunt in terms of star clout, but Hunt holds her ground against him. The many years difference in their ages becomes negligible. They play such mixed up, desperate characters that we can believe in the romance that develops. (Hunt is good, yet I would've preferred someone about 10 years older.) In addition, Greg Kinnear is excellent as Simon. Instead of making Simon into a flamboyantly gay character (as Hollywood traditionally would've done in the past in order to maximize the jokes), Kinnear's performance is relatively low-key. He isn't out to steal the scenes away from Nicholson. No, the scene stealer is the dog, Verdell. But that's okay because the movie ends up revolving around Verdell. Everyone becomes different through Verdell's presence. (At one point, producer/director James L. Brooks' even considered calling the movie A Dog's Life.)
As Good As It Gets is one of the very finest comedies of the year. It's been a long time since a movie supplied so many outright belly laughs. Make sure you see this movie.
[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]