As Good As It Gets

* * * 1/2*

It is interesting that perhaps some of the best cinematic characters are people we'd never want to know in real life. This is a film about one of them...one of the most abrasive people ever. Yet, when someone else is the target of his attacks, it's amusing to watch, and, over time, the bitter character begins to grow on us. Helped by a terrific performance, As Good As It Gets is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy about a horrible man, and how people grow to like him.

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is not the most pleasant guy to be around. He's extremely obnoxious obsessive-compulsive individual, and his anti-social tendencies exude themselves in his frequent hurtful wisecracks. And though he might not be a nice guy to meet, he's a hoot to watch in a wonderful performance by Nicholson.

As much as he'd not like to, Melvin finds himself entertwined in the lives of his gay neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), whom he despises only slightly less than Simon's lapdog Verdell, and Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), the single mother waitress at the restaurant which is an important part of Melvin's highly obsessive schedule.

Carol and Melvin establish a rapaport, if not a friendship. Melvin's idiosyncracies and obnoxious behavior drive everyone else away, but Carol thinks she can see the man inside...but perhaps she's just desperate. In any case, it's not like she doesn't have anything else on her mind...her sick child is a basketcase, and it's nearly more than she and her mother (Shirley Knight) can handle.

Most of the joy out of watching As Good As It Gets comes from Jack Nicholson's excellent portrayal. Nicholson is at his best when he oozes his charm between scathing putdowns, and this role seems tailored to his specialty. Tailor-fit or not, it's an audacious performance, and great joy to watch.

That said, the supporting cast isn't bad either. Greg Kinnear is very good as the object of most of Nicholson's vitriol. Helen Hunt displays a load of charm here as the only woman in Melvin's life, and Cuba Gooding Jr is good in a bit part as Simon's boisterous art dealer.

The arc of the story in As Good As It Gets is only helped by the audiences viewpoint. We know nothing about Melvin at the start of the film (well, putting aside what we've seen in the previews). At first his behavior is bizaare and repulsive. But as the film progresses, we gradually warm up to his character. In the same way, Melvin is anathema to those around him in the film, but they, too, see his human side as the film progresses.

It would be enjoyable to watch a character as rich as Melvin Udall in nearly any film. However, here, he's surrounded by a solid quasi-romantic comedy, too. And, hey...I can't resist it...As Good As It Gets is just about as good as it gets.

[PG-13 - strong language, thematic elements, nudity and a beating] (TriStar)


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