For aging actors, screen presence rests on screen past. It was Pauline Kael who observed that we greet Cary Grant as ”the sum of his most successful roles,” and the more idiosyncratic the actor, the weightier the load. So never mind the coincidence that Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen have both just played misanthropic novelists to big acclaim (Jack picking up a third Oscar, Woody wowing the critics), consider instead that we tolerate the jerks only because they’re our old friends.

In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson turns his character, the racist, sexist, obsessive-compulsive Melvin Udall, into a sympathetic guy by jacking up the Jackness. At 61, with his hairline farther receded, the cinema’s most supercilious eyebrows seem to have a larger field in which to misbehave. Jowls jiggling, voice half corroded, Nicholson reinterprets his old anti-heroics, evoking a persona that can accommodate the existentially disaffected (the bourgeois dropouts of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), the aggressively pompous (the hotshot ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment, a controlling boor in Carnal Knowledge), and the ecstatically malicious (the outsize psychos in The Shining and Batman).

The performance is sharp enough to distract us from the film at large, in which cold-blooded Melvin warms up to a distressed quartet: Carol (Helen Hunt), the only waitress he can stand; Simon, a brutally mugged neighbor (Greg Kinnear, as a gay painter — a victimized vamp portrayed so broadly that you expect him to play with dolls); Frank, Simon’s agent (Cuba Gooding Jr., equally queeny); and Verdell, Simon’s pooch, the most fully drawn of them all. The film’s set mostly in New York City, but located squarely in Sitcomville, USA.

Yet the problem’s not that Good is a sitcom (and, indeed, Hunt’s banality and laugh-track timing are all the more evident on the small screen); it’s that the show is so thoroughly phony as to insist not only that Melvin, who has written 62 books, falls for Carol, who has trouble spelling two-syllable words, but also that she reciprocates, nursing a crush on the loutish freak. It’s as if the diner waitress in Five Easy Pieces, after having been told by Jack — famously — to hold the chicken between her knees, chose to hold him there instead. But then, Carol’s unaware that it’s Nicholson ordering breakfast, while the audience knows Melvin to be the latest installment of a self-made myth.

Where Jack caricatures his alter ego, Woody explores his alter id. Of course, he’s played the charming neurotic many times before; in Deconstructing Harry, he’s stripped to a flailing neuron in black-rimmed glasses. Unlike Melvin, whose belligerence gets chalked up to bad brain chemistry, Allen’s Harry Block is irredeemably loathsome — boozing, whoring, cheating, and publishing thinly veiled autobiography to the ire of ex-lovers. He’s palatable (and, occasionally, moving) only because of our reservoir of feeling for ”the Woody Allen character,” the same scared schlemiel who, at the extreme, in Zelig, wants to fit in so badly that he turns into a chameleon.

And if you’re inclined to dismiss Allen as pretentious and whiny, in Harry he gives you — with clarity, virtuosity, and acid wit — a hot, ironic response to the old detractions. Cribbing from the European masters? Harry takes a Wild Strawberries-type road trip, then an imaginary visit to a Fellini inferno. Pairing himself with unsuitably girlish girlfriends? Mariel Hemingway — who, as Allen’s teen love interest in Manhattan, assured him that ”not everyone gets corrupted” — pops up as a carping shrew. Obsessive navel gazing? Harry’s indulgences provide the finest, funniest scenes as his fictional creations mingle with and dissolve into their ”real-life” counterparts. Harry is scorching self-parody as comic triumph.

Woody looks less animated than ever, weary of his quests for God and Meaning. In the picture’s final fantasy sequence, Harry is applauded by his own characters — a roomful of ghosts ready to love him: a fresh take on a familiar trope. In Hannah and Her Sisters, a suicidal Woody discovers a reason to live in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. In the underrated Stardust Memories, Woody — as a despondent director — takes solace in his own happy ending. And here’s the lonely day-dreamer again, seeking refuge, finding his self and his salvation in fiction — the movies. C+

As Good As It Gets
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