As Good as It Gets (1997)

Valentine’s Day is approaching (at least I think….is this a…what day is this?) and love is in the air. Or maybe its disdain for love. Anyway something’s in the air and it smells and its time to celebrate with one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time.

Now first off, there was a time when this movie was my favorite movie of all time. In 1998 there was not a movie I had seen more, quoted more profusely or recommended more to my peers. Witnessing the acting in this film WAS and still IS film school. Since then I’ve discovered a few more films and filmmakers and the film currently sits around the 12 to 20 slot in my top list. Nevertheless it still exhibits all that I hold dear in cinema.

James L. Brooks is one of my idols. As a wannabe screenwriter it is my dream to create high-society, romantic comedies in the vein of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and James L. Brooks. If the torch carried by Whit Stillman, Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach could be passed to me I would greatly accept. As much as I love Woody Allen what attracts me to the works of James L. Brooks is that the characters feel more real. Now with Woody Allen I love being sucked into this lavish world of high-society aristocrats in scrupulous perils that only he and his characters seem to exist in. As someone who longs for fine dining, art and exotic living locales it is a joy to live vicariously through the world of Woody Allen’s characters and witness life in a whole other manner. James L. Brooks on the other hand, while very much maintaining the sophistication of Allen, explores more of a blue-collar world. A world where characters interactions truly make an impact on others and the slightest instance can set off a social bomb.

Brook’s 1987 film Broadcast News is one of the finest films of its decade and established him as a writing force to be reckoned with. But for me, his true masterpiece is the 1997 Oscar favorite As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson delivers my favorite performance. Yes, even considering Five Easy PiecesEasy RiderChinatownCuckoo’s NestBatmanShiningPrizzi’s Honor, there is nothing that is quintessential “Jack” like Melvin Udall. It’s a great tribute to Brooks and Nicholson’s talents that while Melvin Udall makes a substantial change from grumpy, reclusive, obsessive-compulsive old kook to the savior and love interest of Helen Hunt’s Carol the waitress, the change is not extravagant to the point of pretentiousness.  By the film’s end there are only a few improvements on the social behavior of Melvin Udall and yet his good and honest nature is established from the film’s beginning. After all, isn’t that how life works? Don’t we only seem to change in some ways and yet the morals and values we hold dear today are the ones we’ve carried with us since youth?

The film is a master class in exposition and storytelling. Every detail of Brook’s script is executed perfectly and every emotion each character feels is expertly conveyed. Greg Kinnear’s Simon Bishop seeing his disfigured face for the first time following a savage beating. Helen Hunt’s Carol’s first date with a young Wall Streeter who scurries at the reality of her home life as a mother to a sick son. Melvin Udall’s struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and therefore his resistance to change. These moments hurt. These moments feel real. These moments make the characters feel realer that most. Anyone of us is capable of having all their possessions and dreams taken from them. Anyone of us is susceptible to anger and resentment to those that are different. And anyone of us is capable of uniting with the most unlikely of people in the oddest of times.

The film features some of my favorite dialogue exchanges of all time including the “sell crazy someplace else, were all stocked up here” from the trailer and this ditty that Nicholson provides during the film’s road trip in the 3rd act.

“Not true, some people have wonderful stories. Great stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and…noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But some people. That’s their story. Good times. Noodle salad. It’s not that your life was that bad, its that your that pissed that so many other’s had it good.”



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