As Good As It Gets (1997)

D: James L. Brooks
S: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear.

A reclusive, obsessive writer is forced out of his shell by a growing relationship with a hardworking waitress and a homosexual neighbour. He gradually falls in love with the former and develops a certain tolerance and respect for the latter. The end.

Plotwise, there's not much to this film. Dramatically, it is an attempt at a detailed characterisation of three individuals, and even resorts to some 'road movie' action to put all three in the one place at the one time and see what happens. But this film lacks any purpose other than to let Nicholson indulge himself. His character is a colourful antihero with various psychological and emotional eccentricities suitable for an actor of his particular reputation. Anyone who loves Jack Nicholson will enjoy this film simply because he is in it. Anyone who does not will not, because despite the presence of fellow Oscar winner Helen Hunt, former Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jnr., and Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear, it's Nicholson's movie from start to finish.

But even fans may find themselves taxed by a series of contrived dramatic situations and the lack of real psychological insight despite what seems to be an earnest attempt to deal with pertinent questions about people in the late twentieth century. Underneath the window dressing of sick children, homophobia and family dysfunction, this is a frothy feel good story not a million miles from the 'idiot makes good' movies of recent years. In many ways Nicholson's character is no more dramatically convincing than Bill Murray's very similar obsessive-compulsive in Frank Oz' What About Bob? His constant one-liner put downs are good for a mean laugh, and provide some entertainment for the audience in the early part of the film, but we are only too aware that the film will eventually reveal that they are a mask for a sensitive and troubled soul eager to find some kind of peace with the world in spite of himself.

Like Good Will Hunting, the film seems convinced that its insights are profound and involving, when in reality we have seen them all before. As Good As It Gets survives as long as it does purely on Nicholson's charisma, and many people will excuse the fact that there is virtually no progression or development of his character beyond the most obvious and predictable simply because of it.

Despite much grimacing and swallowing, Helen Hunt can't really bring her character fully to life given the limitations imposed upon her by the script. She embraces the multiple roles of mother, worker and sexual being with a certain amount of skill, but there is little dramatic payoff in the film's feel good ending. This is not to say it should have ended in tragedy, but it merely adds to the feeling of manipulative contrivance with which these characters have been tossed into a plotless world. Greg Kinnear has some moments in support, but he is outshined by Gooding in a much smaller role. Harold Ramis has a nice cameo as a celebrity doctor.

It is perhaps fitting that this was the film which took the acting plaudits in the Oscar ceremony of its year, but this belies the fact that it has little else to recommend it. This is a minor cinematic scribble by talents capable of much better work. It can be enjoyable if it catches you in the right frame of mind, but it very much depends on your tolerance for its star. This is not a film anyone really needs to see, but if you are predisposed to its particular meandering style, it may prove worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.