James L. Brooks? I, for one, had to look the name up. I recognized it, but no one film instantly jumped out at me. Without the huge notoriety or name recognition, Brooks has a handful of classics and near-classics to his name whether it be directing or writing. How about one where he did both? That's 1997's As Good as It Gets.
Living in a spacious NYC apartment, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a famous author who churns out one classic love story and novel after another. His personality doesn't match the writing style though. Melvin is obsessive-compulsive, racist, a homophobe and basically hates everyone. He has no real friends, tolerating a semi-friendly waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), at a restaurant he eats at everyday, and basically tries to avoid contact with everyone. His cozy little world riddled with OCD is thrown for a loop when his neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), a gay artist, is horrifically beaten, and Melvin is forced to care for his tiny little dog, Verdell. Melvin has had quite the past with both Simon and Verdell but can't get out of the arrangement and agrees to watch the dog until Simon recovers. It's one little thing that changes Melvin's ways as an odd three-way friendship is forged among the author, the waitress and the gay artist. It's three very different people, but they seem to have found a unifying bond among them.
A favorite among critics and audiences in 1997, 'Good' earned over $140 million in theaters and was an even bigger success at the Oscars with Nicholson winning Best Actor and Hunt winning Best Actress. Oh, and there were five other nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Kinnear. My recent viewing was my first for this film, and I enjoyed it a lot. How come? I can't really describe it. None of the characters are all that likable, and in a meandering sort of way, I never really knew where it was going or what it was trying to say. What then is the answer? I think it resonated with audiences because it is about people, their lives, their struggles inside themselves and interacting with others. Can't everybody see the appeal in that in some way? It feels real. No explosions or shootouts, just some solid dramatic moments, one on top of the other.
An acting legend, Nicholson has won three separate Oscars and earned 12 nominations overall. I'm partial to his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as his best, but against a talented field in 1997 -- Matt Damon, Peter Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall -- Nicholson delivers a gem. The fact that we like this character even a smidge is a testament to Nicholson's ability. His Melvin Udall -- the perfect name for this character -- is a racist, prejudiced, obsessive-compulsive individual while also becoming a famous author. He has absolutely no filter in whatever he says and basically only thinks of himself at all times, how things affect him. Just about everyone who meets him is disgusted by him, and he welcomes it. That he finds some sort of odd companionship with a squirrelly little dog named Verdell is beyond perfect. I liked the movie throughout, but there's no doubt Nicholson is the best part of the movie.
While Nicholson's performance was the most noteworthy for me, all three lead performances are really worth mentioning. Mostly known from TV sitcom Mad About You and as the girl from Twister, Hunt shows what a talented actress she really is. A single mom with a son who has horrific asthma attacks almost at will, her Carol works as a waitress and has the unpleasant title of being Melvin's favorite waitress. She's trying to do what's best for her son and is put in an interesting predicament by Melvin even if his reasons for doing a very generous thing seem almost entirely intentional. In the smallest of the three parts, Kinnear is very good without being stereotypical as a struggling artist in NYC, a gay man who resents Melvin more and more for his brutally inappropriate comments about his sexuality.
Also look for Cuba Gooding Jr. in a solid part as Simon's agent who's trying to help him become a successful artist. Shirley Knight is very good as Beverly, Carol's very helpful mother and also watch for Yeardley Smith, Skeet Ulrich, Harold Ramis, and even future SNL star (and more) Maya Rudolph in supporting parts. Look quick for Rudolph or you'll miss her.
If I have one complaint with 'Good' it is that at 139 minutes it is a tad on the long side. There are some big, dramatic moments (but not overdone thankfully), but for the most part the story leans more toward the episodic. We meet the characters, see them interact in a variety of places and fashions. Late in the movie, Melvin, Carol and Simon go on a road trip with an odd purpose, an extended sequence that works well but I questioned where it was going. It does eventually get there, it just takes a little while with an effective ending. Funny, very dark, emotional, and based in some sort of personal reality, this is a good one.
As Good as It Gets (1997): ***/****