There’s so much I enjoy about this movie that it feels like cutting my own throat to write the inescapable conclusion. As Good As It Gets is rotten to its whimsical core by virtue of one essential flaw. The flaw is far from uncommon but it’s one almost every viewer overlooks. It goes like this:
It’s beyond the realms of possibility that Helen Hunt‘s sassy but stressed waitress Carol Connolly, working hard to get treatment for her sick son and failing at romance at every turn, could ever contemplate getting together with Jack Nicholson‘s neurotically vain, jealous, arrogant, homophobic, racist, paranoid, self-obsessed, misanthropic OCD bully of a novelist (Melvin Udall to his mother, and otherwise quite a nice chap) under any imaginable circumstances, let alone throw in her cards and let him win her over at the end with a dose of syrupy sentimentality that might well make you throw up on the spot.
Let’s face facts here: nobody could live with Mr Udall unless they were equally egocentric, and not even then. If it happened in real life she would be on trial for murder within a month, unless he beat her to it. She certainly couldn’t live with him, no matter what self-serving kindnesses he had done her, and the idea of sex would be like your teenagers imagining you indulging in pleasurable fornication – absolutely yuk!!
In addition to the spiky Mr Udall and Ms Connolly, the unlikely trio of leading protagonists is completed by Udall’s neighbour, sensitive gay artist and dog lover Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) who tries to retain his dignity in the face of a vicious beating and many injuries, supported by his camp black agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.) Between his sexuality, dogs and agent, Bishop represents everything that Udall fears and loathes – or at least a high proportion of this top ten. Yet by the end of the movie, the nasty old fart has been won around to the dog, Verdell, and seems almost to tolerate Bishop, and possibly even the unfortunate Mr Sachs. Quite a transformation is on display here!
But then this is a rom-com world, so the rules of normal life are preserved in aspic or simply thrown out of the window wholesale. The idea is simply that we are supposed to be charmed to the core such that we overlook the psychology of human emotions. When Melvin and Carol are in the restaurant together and she demands a compliment, he blusters but eventually comes out with the line:
“You make me want to be a better man”
…then, so goes the theory, your heart will melt like last night’s party ice and you will forgive anything. Anything! Cliches, prize ham acting, the lot. Actually, I shouldn’t be too cynical – it is a truly memorable line.
Well, here’s the flip side: fact is that the movie is, by and large, warm, witty, sparkles at regular intervals, has a social conscience and integrity, is acted with moments of genius by a very fine cast, and charms the socks off all but the withered-hearted Scrooges of the world. Rom Coms and Chick Flicks as a breed are most definitely not my usual cup of tea, so the fact that I’ve seen this movie more than once must say something.
Full credit to the principle protagonists for allowing us to suspend disbelief at least far enough that we can enjoy the dialogue. A tad toe-curling on occasions, but as with the line quoted above it has high spots worth repeating.
Most men remember fondly the scene where Carol is waiting at Melvin’s door, wearing a t-shirt but for an instant forgetting that she has just been drenched… so her nipples are standing to attention and thereby giving exactly the wrong signal! Memorable also is Simon drawing the naked Carol, only for Melvin to storm in and ask Simon if he had had sex with her. Carol’s retort says much about the needs of women, something the Melvin’s of this world would never understand:
“To hell with sex! It was better than sex! We held each other! What I needed, he gave me great.”
But the undoubted star of the show is Verdell, whose real name is not recorded. Like the dog in The Artist, he steals every scene he’s in, bless his little heart. Never work with animals or children – it always was the best motto.