The 1997 comedy “As Good as It Gets” served as James L. Brooks’ formal apology for the train wreck known as “I’ll Do Anything.”
But “Gets,” which finally hits Blu-ray this week, reminds us that Brooks’ creative powers were clearly ebbing as the 1990s drew to a close.
Gone were the glory days of Brooks classics like “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News.” His more recent work includes the decidedly mediocre “Spanglish” (2004) and the embarrassing “How Do You Know” (2010).
“As Good as It Gets” requires great performances to pull off the unlikely romance between a single mother and an aging neurotic, and the trio of Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear more than oblige. They tallied three Oscar nominations and two wins between them, and every accolade is richly deserved.
Nicholson plays Melvin, a successful romance writer who treats everyone around him like disposable trash – or worse. He suffers from OCD, but his personality flaws appear far larger than any single condition.
To put it bluntly, he’s a jerk.
Melvin feels an odd attachment to Carol (Hunt), a bedraggled waitress at his favorite restaurant. Carol’s son is an asthmatic, and she’s constantly taking off work to rush the lad to the hospital for treatment. The last thing she needs is all the workplace drama Melvin provides. He brings his own plastic utensils with him and barks at fellow diners who rub him the wrong way.
Enter Simon (Kinnear), a gay artist suffering from a financial meltdown after he’s severely beaten and cannot continue painting. Simon lives on the same floor as Melvin’s lush apartment, and through a series of contrived moments Melvin must care for Simon’s adorable dog.
This very odd trio of fractured souls become attached to one another through some farcical events, while Melvin realizes his method of keeping society at arm’s length is no longer an option.
“As Good as It Gets” includes a number of teeth-grinding moments, from cutesy dog close-ups to over-staged confrontations which even this cast can’t make authentic. But Brooks’ pen is mightier than his narrative, giving Nicholson a series of short but blazing monologues and letting Hunt’s crusty exterior slowly soften over time.
Her New York attitude is spot on, an attitude most actors can’t even approximate.
The film demands patience, and it needs every minute of its nearly 2 1/2 hour running time to convince us there’s a romance worthy of our attention.
Kinnear’s character enters the film as a bland stereotype – the gentle gay soul who might break down and cry at any moment. But in ways his spine is just as stiff as Carol’s, a working mom who comes to understand how to forge a little happiness out of her otherwise dour existence.
Brooks uses all three characters against one another in ways that build tension, comedy and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Nicholson draws the toughest assignment, making a racist, homophobic jerk into a character worth our love. It forces the actor to drop his standard tics and dig as deeply as he can into Melvin, a fussy soul whose OCD forces him to walk down a sidewalk like a trapeze artist navigate a wobbly wire.
The actor’s age still gets in the way. He’s simply too old, and too flawed, to be worthy of someone like Carol. But when Melvin uncorks a compliment you can sense women’s knees shaking across all of New York’s five boroughs.
“As Good as It Gets” is alternately mawkish and refined, but some grand performances and flashes of Brooks’ wit render it a far more engaging romance than what passes for rom-com status today.
The new Blu-ray edition arrives without extras of consequence.