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Not Quite As Good As It Gets

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff REporter

In the beginning of As Good As It Gets, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a disturbingly unstable human being: a sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, obsessive-compulsive writer of sappy romantic novels (that last one, if there was any doubt, should certainly mark him as a despicable man). While not totally repellent (Nicholson has way too much charisma for something like that to happen), it is certainly off-putting to witness his antics. As the two and a half hour movie progresses, Melvin is forced to take care of increasingly more challenging beings - his neighbor's dog Verdell (a true scene-stealer, that pooch); his neighbor, gay painter Simon (Greg Kinnear); and his long-suffering waitress Carol (Helen Hunt). In the process, Melvin undergoes some changes - he becomes softer, gentler, and more likable.

This is also how the film itself changes. For most of its running time, "As Good As It Gets" also suffers from a psychic ailment - in this case, split personality. It wants to be both a broadly drawn comedy/drama and a fine penetrating character study (while throwing a love story into the mix). These two modes refuse to co-exist, and the film suffers a lot by trying to have it both ways. It is certainly not impossible to have a combination of a comedy and a drama. However, in order to accomplish that, at least one of them has to be subtle. This is definitely not the case here. Everything is drawn in broad strokes; Melvin's caustic slurs are a riot, physical comedy verges on slapstick, and dramatic elements, when they come, are played on grand scale, complete with tears, hand-wringing, and so on. Nothing is wrong with any of this per se. In fact, every single scene in As Good As It Gets is played with finesse and conviction. Unfortunately, these scenes don't gel into a cohesive narrative.

The main problem is that playing everything as a caricature (albeit an engaging one) prevents us from perceiving the film's situations as real. Characters are not convincingly real and, because of this, the character study itself fails to be convincing. If Melvin were a little bit less atrocious in the beginning; if Carol's life weren't so absolutely harrowing; if Simon's problems were not so life-threatening; that is to say, if all of them felt like real human beings, the viewers would probably invest more long-term interest in their fates, as opposed to short-term interest in the next gag or next dramatic situation, which both just keep coming.

For quite a while As Good As It Gets is very uneven and invites sarcastic title-inspired remarks. Even the excellent trio of main actors (all of them nominated for respective Golden Globe Awards, with Nicholson and Hunt winning theirs) can't handle the quick shifts in each characters' behavior, although every moment, when viewed by itself, rings true - especially Helen Hunt's engaging, emotional performance.

Then, about two hours into the film, a miracle happens. The writing becomes more convincing and the characters become rounded and believable. The actors manage to finally flesh out their performances and the viewers get more accustomed to the shifts in tone; and the film, just like Melvin Udall, becomes gentle and likable. During the last ten minutes, As Good As It Gets soars into high romance and it's truly remarkable how well it works. It's still impossible to believe that something like this can really happen, but the film works even in spite of that. Considering that viewers had been observing highly improbable people going through highly unlikely events, this is a worthy achievement indeed.

So, decide for yourself - is the inspired finale worth an investment into an entertaining but less than convincing two hours? It was for me.