James L. Brooks’ Oscar-winning As Good As It Gets marks the 25th anniversary of the romantic dramedy’s 1997 theatrical release.
Poor Verdell. That’s what happens when you pee in the lobby and piss off a neighbor. No dog deserves to be dumped in the dumpster! But in all seriousness, the dogs playing Verdell end up stealing the show and force Jack Nicholson into playing the straight man to the pooch. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a bigoted novelist that nobody likes and his OCD means having a daily routine. It’s enough that the antisemitism is on display when a pair of Jews are sitting at his table at the restaurant. Not that his name is on the table. But anyway, there’s a connection with his waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), and he shows his care for her by making sure her son gets the health care that he needs. Carol is the only waitress at the restaurant that is able to put up with Melvin. As Melvin says, she makes him want to be a better man. At the film’s start, you wouldn’t expect them to be together by the end but there’s a connection there. Furthermore, Melvin’s annoyance with a neighbor’s dog sparks a big chunk of the film’s plot.
Everything changes when Melvin’s gay neighbor, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), ends up in the hospital after getting jumped. It results in Melvin reluctantly taking care of Simon’s dog, Verdell. Whether Melvin likes it or not, Verdell grows an attachment to the misanthropic novelist. There’s a change in Melvin and it’s something that even commands attention from Carol. However, Simon’s eventual return home puts Melvin in a dilemma as he does not want to return Simon. Meanwhile, Melvin also learns that Carol is going to start working closer to her home in Brooklyn. Because he doesn’t like this change, he shows his generosity in a way that not even Carol could believe it. It turns out that Melvin has the money to afford a doctor for Carol’s son.
Simon’s hospital bills are putting him in a position where he is inching closer to bankruptcy. Before we know it, Melvin is driving both Simon and Carol to Baltimore. This trip is able to bring out a bond that nobody could have seen coming at the start of the film. The characters continue to go on this journey although Melvin could use some work with his words around women–driving Carol away leads to Simon finding a desire to paint once again. Things eventually work out after returning to New York.
Comedies have a way of finding laughs even when life is hard. Even the smallest of things can lead to a laugh–trust me, I was going through a depressing week back in March 2009 and am forever grateful for NBC Chicago (WMAQ) having a Food Watch typo. Anyway, Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus find the comedy while exploring the toughest parts of life in As Good As It Gets. It never swings too far in either the comedy or drama direction and finds a home somewhere in the middle. Is it a comedy or drama? The film’s synopsis says comedy but elsewhere, it is described as a dramedy.
The Academy awarded both Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt with Oscars for their acting in this film. That they did so during the same year as Titanic was almost certainly one of the biggest surprises of the year. In watching the film again for the 25th anniversary, I completely agree with the two awards in particular. It also speaks to their skills and the direction of the film. Brooks knows a thing or two about making comedies–and making people cry–and gives Nicholson lines that you probably would have never expected to come out of his mouth. But in the same way that Brooks directs the hell out of this film, Nicholson’s acting helps to elevate the work of his co-stars. People can learn a thing or two just from watching him act. It’s one of the performances that can be described as a masterclass in acting.
One thing that I completely forgot going into the rewatch was that Hans Zimmer scored the film. Back in the 1990s, I didn’t really pay attention to who composed the scores of what. But in any event, Zimmer is not a composer that I typically associate with comedies. Anyway, Zimmer’s score has to rise up to the level of the writing in a James L. Brooks film. In the end, he delivers an Oscar-nominated score that he describes as “humble” and “little.” This was during an era where the Academy had separate categories for Dramatic and Musical/Comedy scores.
If there’s something that doesn’t hold up since the film’s 1997 release, it’s having a cishet actor playing gay. If you make the film today, filmmakers would have to cast a gay man or there would be much criticism on the film’s casting. However, this is what went for casting in 1997 and so I’m looking at the film through the lens in which it was released. Interestingly enough, Brooks initially wanted Geoffrey Rush to play Simon. I’m sorry but I have a hard time seeing Rush in the role.
Even though it’s a TriStar release, Sony recently released the film as a part of its Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection, Volume 3. The 4K UHD release includes a Blu-ray with new and archival bonus features. New features include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and an archival theatrical EPK soundbites. Legacy features include the theatrical trailer and audio commentary with director James L. Brooks, actors Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear, editor Richard Marks, producer Laurence Mark, and composer Hans Zimmer.
As Good As It Gets features a masterclass in writing, directing, and acting while reminding us that people can grow and evolve in their lives.
DIRECTOR: James L. Brooks
SCREENWRITERS: Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks
CAST: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros
TriStar released As Good As It Gets in theaters on December 25, 1997. Grade: 4.5/5
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