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THE MAN WHO CAME TO BREAKFAST

As his first official act of the morning, he tosses the pet dog of his gay neighbor down the garbage chute. Then, after being oh-so-careful not to step on any crack in the sidewalk and entering the cafe where he usually gets his morning pancakes and bacon, he finds people sitting at his usual table.

"There are Jews at my table," he blusters in complaint to the only waitress in the joint who can stand him. When she is understandably less than sympathetic, he goes back to the table and harasses the occupants as vilely as possible until they leave.

Before James L. Brooks' quirkily delightful romantic comedy "As Good as It Gets" is over, he has unleashed a river of equally vile insults at gays, blacks and overweight people. ("Elephant girl," he calls a slightly plump waitress.)

To be politically incorrect is one thing. To be a monster and a horror is something else entirely, and that's what Melvin Udall seems to be. This is a Grinch who could probably steal anyone's Christmas -- and every other day of the year, too.

"Seems" is the operative word there. It is the whole point of this off-center romantic comedy that he is really just lonely and scared and, in fact, sick (more about that later). And that all he really needs in the world are love and friendship.

He is a wealthy writer played by Jack Nicholson, and when Nicholson and Brooks team up, you think "Terms of Endearment," not "Psycho." Or, in this case, a very hip, witty, sexy, New York upper-crust version of "A Christmas Carol."

The person who plays Bob Cratchit to Melvin's Scrooge is, in fact, named Carol. She's the lovely waitress at his favorite joint who is having a nightmarish uphill struggle with her little boy's health. (He is asthmatic and seems to spend half of his -- and her -- life in the emergency room. He spends the other half scaring off her potential dates.)

For some reason, she is just about the only human being in the world who can bear to be around Melvin when anxiety is attacking on all 12 cylinders. Out of that simple tolerance, something resembling love will follow when he puts all of his resources behind getting proper medical attention for her son.

She is played by Helen Hunt.

Scare up the trumpets and ruffle the drums. This is it. This is the lovely, sexy movie role Helen Hunt has had in her for more than 10 years and that kept on being waylaid by monkey movies, TV sitcoms, special-effects tornadoes and the like. Now that it's here, it's a nice seasonal gift to us all.

While all of this is going on, Melvin's gay next-door neighbor -- a painter named Simon Bishop, played by Greg Kinnear (Melvin sweetly introduces the two: "Carol the waitress, this is Simon the Fag") -- has been robbed and nearly beaten to death by one of his rough-trade models and his cohorts.

While he's mending, his little dog has to go into the care of someone, so . . .

And yes, of course, human monster Melvin and cute dog instantly bond in one of those man/beast relationships that might make you believe in past lives and karma after all.

For reasons too complicated to explain, all three -- Melvin, Carol and Bishop -- wind up driving to Baltimore, where painter and waitress bond when she poses for him and Melvin is left out in the cold even more than usual.

All, of course, will be healed eventually, and love -- although a notably off-kilter and neurotic version of it -- will find the beginning of a sliver of a way.

Nicholson, Hunt and Kinnear are all marvelous, but then, when James L. Brooks is in charge, comic actors almost always are. This, remember, is the man who co-invented "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and godfathered "The Simpsons" and Tracy Ullman. In American entertainment these days, few more reliable -- and humane -- professionals exist than James L. Brooks.

With all that, there is a small problem. Nicholson or no, Melvin Udall is so vile that it just isn't quite as easy to make him seem cuddlesome as Brooks thinks, even when he's playing the piano and warbling "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." His manias and obsessive compulsions (he throws bars of Neutragena soap away after lathering only once) are explained, on the fly, as part of a "condition" he's supposed to take drugs for.

What "condition"? I hate to be such a literalist, but if we're to warm up to this sociopolitical crocodile, a little more explanation would be helpful than some phantom "condition" he needs medication for.

When he says, "What if this is as good as it gets?" to fellow patients at his psychiatrist's office, it gives us the title in a good gag but it also gives us too fuzzy an indicator of his problems. (Bipolar condition? Paranoia? Both?)

Brooks gets away with it, of course, because Melvin Udall is played by Jack Nicholson, who is one of the most irresistible performers in the history of American movies. With almost any other actor, though, that tiny hole in the script might have been big enough to let all of the lovability out, even when Kinnear and Hunt are giving the best performances they've ever given on screen.

But when old Jack's around and at his best, all is right with the world.

As Tiny Tim might say: God bless us, every one.

REVIEW
As Good as It Gets
Rating: *** 1/2
Jack Nicholson as a monstrous, neurotic writer, Helen Hunt as the only person who can stand him, Greg Kinnear as his gay neighbor. With Cuba Gooding Jr. Written and directed by James L. Brooks. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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