As Melvin Udall, a mean SOB who is good at his art (he’s a romance novelist) but lousy at life, Jack Nicholson digs into As Good as It Gets with more energy than he’s shown since A Few Good Men. Not only is Melvin breathtakingly offensive—he barks homophobic insults at his neighbor, a sweet gay painter (Greg Kinnear), and blurts whatever cruel thoughts come into his head to complete strangers—but he also wrestles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that has him washing his hands constantly, stepping over sidewalk cracks, and bringing his own plastic utensils to the cafe where he eats every day. In other words, he’s not your usual romantic-comedy hero—and he’s the best thing about this talky, off-kilter story (which is neither entirely romantic nor entirely comedic), cowritten (with Mark Andrus), produced, and directed by the redoubtable James L. Brooks.

Melvin’s one semi-human connection is with Carol Connelly, the put-upon waitress who serves him daily, a gal you know is splendid because she’s played by Mad About You TV star and Twister heroine Helen Hunt. Carol’s the salt of the earth—a single mom devoted to the care of her asthmatic son, living with her mother (Shirley Knight) and ignoring the reality that she’s as attractive as Helen Hunt. But by the end of this weightless fairy tale, Melvin will have attained a measure of compassion (or at least the semblance of it), Carol will have relit her sexual fire, Melvin’s gay neighbor will have found new inspiration for his art (in Carol’s nude body—well, hey, who wouldn’t), and the asthmatic kid will have found a doctor who can treat him effectively, thanks to Melvin’s financial support.

The players rattle off some nifty lines: ”Do you have any control over how creepy you allow yourself to get?” Carol asks Melvin in one of her understandable attempts to slap some accountability into him. But hard as the three likable stars try, the film never finds a confident center; everyone appears to be improvising, stretching each bit of business 15 or 20 seconds too long until the whole enterprise has a baggy 20 extra minutes tacked on. Because what, after all, are we to learn: That a savory dish like Carol can’t do better than an old fart like Melvin? That buying health care for a kid instantly makes someone a better person? Unlike Broadcast News—Brooks’ masterpiece, hands down—As Good as It Gets is a cute premise that, upon closer inspection, rings falser rather than truer. It’s pretty good, but not nearly as good as Brooks gets. B-

As Good As It Gets
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