1997 still seems a strange year for Hollywood. For much of the year there seemed to be a growing lesson for the American film industry. The summer was filled with costly misfires: Batman & Robin, The Postman, and particularly Jan de Bont’s disastrous Speed 2: Cruise Control all seemed to indicate that audiences were tiring of high concept, poorly written blockbusters. There were still successful films made on big budgets – The Lost World, Men in Black, and Tomorrow Never Dies – but films produced on a more modest scale honestly seemed able to compete. The Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar cleared US$300 million in global box office, and the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend’s Wedding came within a million of achieving the same feat. Out-earning both of them was James L. Brook’s As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, which was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1997 worldwide and earned seven Academy Award nominations along the way. It has been almost 24 years since its release, and understandably it perhaps lacks the profile it once had. At the time it seemed there were few films that people talked about as much.
As Good As It Gets track three disparate characters. There is Carol (Helen Hunt): a waitress from Brooklyn who works in Manhattan and struggles with a chronically-ill son. There is Simon (Greg Kinnear): a wealthy gay fine artist who is violently assaulted when one of his models tries to rob his apartment. Then there is Melvin (Jack Nicholson), a misanthropic and bigoted author with obsessive-compulsive disorder and an ability to anger and offend every person whom he encounters.
Written by Mark Andrus and Brooks, the film works on two levels. Follow much of the plot and one finds a relatively contrived story of rank sentimentality. Pay more attention to the dialogue and it is a cynical series of sharp one-liners and shock-comedy moments. It handles a fair amount of bathos throughout, which a difficult technique for a writer or director to master on purpose. Every time the story expresses its sentimentality (not in itself a bad thing), there is a cutting line to subvert and destroy the moment. In return, each moment when Melvin’s offensive behaviour threatens to alienate the audience en masse, he is given a human moment as an attempt to soften his image.
It boasts a masterpiece performance by Helen Hunt, who realises Carol as a fully-fledged and three-dimensional character. Her life is one of authentic working class struggle. Every day she crosses the city to work, and every night she waits, cat-like, to pounce on any sign of her son Spencer’s health declining. She lacks the glamour of a Hollywood melodrama, constantly looking exhausted and over-extended by degrees. It is clear when she is first introduced to the audience that she is always fighting against the tide. Her performance is not merely wounded; it is scarred.
The film’s screenplay leans heavily on this imbalance of class. Melvin is rich (which should make most genuine authors watching the film laugh out loud). Simon starts rich but then struggles when his assault prevents him from working. Carol was never rich. An early scene sees a once-successful date collapse because her comparatively wealthy suitor learns she lives with her mother and is a single parent. Her son’s health stumbles along a constant crisis because she lacks the money to afford America’s ruinous health system. When Melvin pays for Spencer’s medical bills, it is an overwhelming and transformational moment for Carol and a mild inconvenience for Melvin. The critical moment for her character comes when Melvin admits to her that he has started taking medication for his OCD because he wants to impress her: ‘you make me want to be a better man’. For Carol, the greatest compliment of her life is that a rich, successful elite thinks she is better than him.
The film does not seem to know quite what to do with these themes. It pushes Carol and Melvin together romantically, but never quite resolves the difference between their two worlds. Commendably it ends on a remarkably ambivalent note for a Hollywood romance, but the problems do remain. One cannot exaggerate how much Helen Hunt’s work invests us in this film and its characters; not just Carol but everybody else with whom she comes into contact.
Simon, remarkably played by Greg Kinnear when he was still best known for reality television, offers a sensitive and emotive contrast to his next-door neighbour Melvin. It is interesting that both men are artists, but where Melvin is ruled by a masculine and rigid cynicism Simon is led by his heart. When he is assaulted in his own home it is a blunt and harrowing moment. There is a debate to had, as always, about whether heterosexual actors should be playing homosexual characters. In itself this is a wonderful performance by Kinnear, but by not more authentically expressing serious issues raised in the script I do feel something great was lost.
As Good As It Gets has so many great elements, but it also has a serious Melvin problem. It is one of Jack Nicholson’s strongest performances, and demonstrates what a skilled performer he can be when pushed beyond his comfort zone. It is also a remarkably ego-free performance, with Nicholson willingly embracing the character’s unsavoury facets as enthusiastically as his comedic features.
If one of the strengths of the film is in the manner in which its cynicism punctures its sentimentality, then Nicholson is the personification of this process. He is comically rude, and of course as a skilled comedic performer Nicholson milks the comedy potential for everything it is worth. At the same time Melvin is enormously problematic. He is openly homophobic and racist, and in one scene expresses antisemitism in a jaw-droppingly offensive manner. His behaviour changes over the course of the film, as he is humanised by contact with Simon and Carol, but there is no price paid for his earlier offensiveness. He starts the film rich and successful, ends it rich and successful, and in the meantime moves a much smaller distance to romance Carol than she moves for him. Nicholson is a hugely enjoyable actor to watch, but it is difficult to shake the sense that we accept the character’s monstrosity because the actor is charismatic. If anybody else played him, we would rightfully despise him. It is likely many viewers do anyway.
Melvin’s OCD is also enormously problematic. While it is commendable that this crippling anxiety disorder gets portrayed at all, it is played for quirks and sympathy and is ruled by convenience. The real OCD is serious business, whereas in Melvin it seems to exist to somehow explain his awful personality and behaviour. Notably, it only features when relevant to the narrative. When the focus needs to be on other characters, it goes away. By the time Melvin’s character needs to be redeemed for the story to conclude, he inexplicably starts to become cured of it.
It is a problematic film, but when the dialogue snaps as it does, and the performances shine like they do, it is amazing how forgiving a viewer can be. The problems – and they are serious flaws – are often only apparent in the aftertaste.
In a way As Good As It Gets feels like the end of an era. Any lessons Hollywood learned from this succeeding and Speed 2 failing were ignored as soon as Titanic opened to US$29 million before becoming the most successful film in the world. Despite the problems, I think I’d take Melvin and Carol over one hundred of Jack and Rose.
As Good As It Gets was re-released on bluray in Australia this week, via Imprint.