Review: Quirky, smart, cruel and hilarious, 'As Good as it Gets' lives up to its title.

THE WINNING FORMULA

December 25, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

Take a gay artist, a harried single mom, a grouchy romance novelist and an incontinent dog, take them on the road, and what do you get? High jinks, of course, with plenty of cheap laughs and a romantic interlude or two along the way. Here we go again, right? But wait. The romantic comedy "As Good As it Gets" may have a suspicious set-up, but it's from the Toscanini of the genre, James L. Brooks, the guy who gave us "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News." In the hands of such a virtuoso, this dangerously formulaic premise becomes a fresh new take on finding love late in life. Of course, it doesn't hurt that otherwise stock characters are given personality and appeal by such gifted comic actors as Greg Kinnear, Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson -- not to mention the most charismatically ugly bed-slipper of a dog since Toto. Smart, funny and often viciously cruel, this is a romantic comedy for people who are too old to believe in fairy tales, but wise enough to accept a happy ending when that's what life gives them.

Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a wealthy and successful romance novelist whose life is perfect except for a few little things: He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, meaning that he washes his hands several times a day, eats the same breakfast at the same time at the same cafe with the same waitress every day, sleeps with a Dust Buster next to the bed and never, ever steps on a crack. Melvin also suffers from a severe case of misanthropy: Whether it's his next door neighbor, the neighbor's dog or the hapless stranger who sits at his regular table, no one is safe from the backdraft of Melvin's scorching invective (think Archie Bunker with a little Don Rickles thrown in for softening).

The only person who doesn't wither under Melvin's spume is his regular waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), whose weary eyes clearly tell the world that she has more important things on her mind than the rantings of a mean, crazy old man. But one day he steps over the line by aiming one of his verbal poison darts toward her son, who is sick at home with debilitating asthma. Melvin's perfect ecology of cruelty begins to implode when he realizes that hurting Carol -- really wounding her -- just doesn't make him happy.

Then there's Verdell, one of those yippy little dogs that look they sleep on their face. Verdell is the bane of Melvin's neatnik comples and the pride and joy of Simon (Kinnear), Melvin's next door neighbor whose profession (artist) and sexuality (gay) make NTC him a good twofer target. When Simon is laid up for a few days, events take a series of unlikely turns, starting with Melving taking on Verdell as his ward and ending with a road-trip to Baltimore.

"As Good As it Gets," which was written by Brooks with Mark Andrus, is such a quirky hodge-podge of odd characters and bizarre, hilarious outbursts that it's difficult to get a handle on at first, but anyone willing to go the distance with these endearing, if damaged, protagonists will be well rewarded. The actors give inspired performances: Kinnear delivers on the promise he's shown in earlier, forgettable forays. And Nicholson may be the one person around who could make someone of Melvin's hatefulness the least bit attractive. It's actually possible to see why Carol thinks he's kind of cute, even has he hurls one gratuitous insult after another. (On women: "Think of a man and take away reason and accountability." Ya gotta love him.)

But the real revelation of "As Good As it Gets" is Helen Hunt, who has earned her laurels as an acclaimed sit-com actress but who achieves new levels here; her ineffable combination of comic timing and classic beauty approaches that of Carole Lombard. Not only does she convincingly deliver some of the best speeches of a movie full of juicy, substantial monologues, but she makes skillful use of her body as an instrument. She is as believable slinging hash as she is posing in the nude for Simon, when she almost imperceptibly stretches her neck and comes into her own as a common woman of uncommon beauty and grace.

Melvin sees her grace, of course, and his testimonials to that effect are some of the greatest words on love ever written in the English language, let alone for the movies. But they don't guarantee any predictable ending. Brooks has enough assurance to steer "As Good As it Gets" safely through some risky comedic moments

(Carol and Melvin standing speechless in a doorway should be canonized as a piece of classic contemporary visual comedy) and potential melodrama (a plot twist that has the audience going for its Kleenex, but that turns out to be a soccer game). And he has the good sense not to make his happy endings conditional on grand transformations or grand epiphanies, but on someone just being themselves, only a little bit better.

"As Good As it Gets"

Starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear

Directed by James L. Brooks

Rated PG-13 for strong language, some violence, drug use and sexuality

Released by Tristar Pictures

Sun Score ****

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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