Rough trade

Life is messy, but As Good As It Gets is just a mess

The ad line for As Good As It Gets is "A comedy from the heart that goes for the throat." Isn't this simply another way of saying, "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll gag"?

Jack Nicholson plays, of all things, a prolific romance novelist who's a virulent xenophobe and a hopeless neurotic--a high-rent Archie Bunker with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He gets laughs when he puts down blacks, women, gays, and Jews, or when he brings plastic eating-ware to restaurants and skips over each crack in the sidewalk. Helen Hunt plays this anti-hero's heroine--a waitress living with her mother and asthmatic son. She jerks tears Stella Dallas-style: from a combination of maternal devotion and romantic frustration.

Their union is supposed to be a heartwarming spectacle, complete with the presence of that new urbane-comedy paragon, the good gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear), and his adorable monkey-faced dog, Verdell. But it's done in such a flimsy, slapdash fashion that skeptics and romantics alike may well find it desperate and depressing. At the sneak preview I saw, the only bit that really detonated the audience was a rant against HMOs. Unfortunately, the kind of laughter in this movie isn't the best medicine either.

In his TV work--he's the co-creator of, among others, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons--James L. Brooks has often packed eccentric wit and warmth into 30-minute slots. But even the best features he's written and directed--not his Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment but Broadcast News and I'll Do Anything--oscillate between the genuine and the pat. He wants to be the Cassavetes of the big-screen sitcom, reaching for spontaneity without giving up climaxes and punch lines. When Brooks is really cooking with his actors (Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, Nick Nolte in I'll Do Anything), they convey the jolting confusions of contemporary life. But the messy emotions and mixed signals in his films often reflect nothing more than his own indecision.

Brooks yearns to snuggle up close to reality. But in real life, time doesn't stand still the way it does in As Good As It Gets. At one point, a hungry, annoyed Nicholson speaks callously of Hunt's son--and she responds with an excruciating 20-second burn. Aspiring to something deeper than an updated screwball romance, Brooks has actually come up with something manipulative and superficial. The "serious" moments are clumsy and bludgeoning; the silly ones work only as not-quite-comic relief.

In this movie Brooks operates like a TV impresario during sweeps week. The result is trash without flash. Just in the first half-hour, Nicholson's character, Melvin Udall, insults Simon Bishop (Kinnear), Carol Connelly (Hunt), and anyone else who crosses his path, including the ostensibly Jewish couple sitting at his regular spot at Carol's restaurant. In the same time span, we see Verdell the dog urinate in a hallway and hear a report of him munching on soiled diapers; we witness a date licking Carol's forehead and her son spitting up on her. The piece de resistance comes when Simon's latest model brings some rough-trade friends to rob his place, and they beat him unconscious with a clothes tree.

Brooks thinks he's doing the nitty-gritty, shaping a comic spree around the awkwardness and riskiness of everyday existence. But in effect he's doing his own rough-trading--on the goodwill of the audience. For every moment of crudeness or ugliness, there's one of cuddliness with Verdell. (When Simon goes into the hospital, Melvin takes care of the little scamp and falls for him.) And Brooks milks both the sickness and malice of Nicholson's misanthropic basket case for the most vulgar kind of yocks. The script makes no connection between Melvin's obsessive-compulsive disorder and his gushers of verbal venom; I kept waiting for his shrink to tell him he also has Tourette's syndrome.

The movie has no plot, no spine, no sense. An hour or so into its sloppy 138 minutes, Melvin arranges and pays for private medical treatment for Carol's wheezing kid. She says she'll take the gift but, laying her working-class scruples on the line, warns him that she's not going to sleep with him. This only puts ideas in Melvin's head. Eventually, he wins her with the words, "You make me want to be a better man." Then he loses her by saying he thought of encouraging her and Simon to sleep together. At this point, even the suckers in the audience emit a collective Huh? Experiencing this movie is a little like watching a manic-depressive's medication wear off.

Viewers who get a charge out of Nicholson's overemphatic performance must enjoy seeing his usual roguish behavior treated as an illness and then desexed, defanged, and tamed. Not that Hunt is much of a man-tamer, even if she does have a quarter-century on her co-star. In her struggle for a meat-and-potatoes manner, she resorts to a furrowed-brow sincerity that would have made her the winner on the old Queen for a Day. Kinnear glides through on his deft, crinkly expressions, but only Cuba Gooding Jr., as Simon's gay art dealer, occasionally sparkles, transforming ticking-bomb explosiveness into dynamite shtick. And there's always the dog. Brooks uses Verdell promiscuously, but the pooch does grow on you. The dog just about wags the movie.

As Good As It Gets.
Directed by James L. Brooks. Written by Brooks and Mark Andrus. Starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear. Opens Thursday.

 
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